Tuesday, January 1, 2013

My wishes for iTunes etc in 2013

First off, Happy New Years to everyone.

Those that have been following my on and off blogging (which I resolve in 2013 to try to be more on than off) know that I'm something of an Apple fanboy (well girl) but not in a cultish "everything else sucks" way. Okay a little but I try to keep that to myself.

One thing in particular that I'm crazed about is iTunes. Not the software so much as the stores (although iTunes 11 is getting to where I think the software should be). I feel very very deeply in the core of my being that in fact the world did end in 2012 in some respects. The main respect being that I believe that the Age of Home Video on physical form is over. Well on the dying stages of being the dominant form. Attempts to keep it on the top spot are basically rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. And Apple has the best position to lead the way into a new digital era.

That said I do have a few thoughts about this whole thing, about what I think Apple and the film/tv industry, cable companies etc should do with this whole thing.

The Apple TV question

Blogs everywhere are screaming about this notion of Apple making a 'real' TV and how it is likely to happen this year. In fact, the rumors are being pushed around so much that the likes of Samsung, Intel etc are supposedly going to reveal their new TVs at the upcoming CES so they can be 'first'. This is not unlike how they all rushed to show off their tablets based on rumors that Apple was about to release one. Which as it happens they did. And got it first to market, weeks and months before everyone else. And the rest of that is history.

I think what Apple needs to make is not a TV set but a new Display line up. Take their Cinema Display and make physically larger screen options, increase the resolution, frame rates etc. Add HDMI inputs and so on. A display that could work with a computer, an Apple TV set box, a blu-ray player, a game console. Maximize the markets this display might appeal to. For those with a TV that they are happy with, there's the set top box. Hardware wise the box is pretty close to perfect. Most storage is a given. I would say that 64GB, 32GB minimum. This would still be just for caching etc. With the new bandwidths and cable companies getting off their idiot caps there's no reason not to use the whole 'iTunes in the Cloud' . Or if you are one of those 'i need it local' types use your company and home sharing. Supporting 802.11ac is a must, as well as Apple making it a goal to lead the way in efforts to make wifi even better and faster.

On the UI front, I don't find the current Apple TV to be so detestable. The colors are garish, yes. But the notion of a button based initial UI isn't so bad. It's an iOS based system so why not just use the same icons. That's my real issue with the current look. Within said buttons I am scratching my head about why Movies, TV, Music go to the stores and not our stuff. That's why I would change that. Basically make them like the iTunes 11 look of having local and online (be it iTunes Match or purchased stuff) one big list with some visual bit showing which is which. A little cloud icon or a change in text color or background. Or even both. And make the Apple Remote app mirror this UI so that folks can take that old original iPad or whatever and tap it rather than that pretty but rather annoying silver remote.

Regarding those other bits of tech one might have in the living room, not a must but I wouldn't say no Apple added inputs and a controller SDK so that we can hook our blu-ray players etc into the Apple TV and control even those via the Remote app. But this is something that is more just a fun 'one more thing' and, in my opinion, should be last on the list after everything else.

The Other Boys

Let's start with the Studios and Networks. The key thing for them is to get their heads out of their collective butt and admit that digital is here to stay and stop fighting it. In the early days they spouted out fears that making it easier to have nice quality digital files would just increase pirating. So they held it back. And guess what? It has done nothing. In fact, most of the top pirated TV shows are the same ones that take the longest to get to legit online sources, things like Game of Thrones, Dexter and True Blood. And then there's the Ratings argument. The Networks base all decisions on how much Ad money a show brings in which is tied to the shows ratings. So they loathe anything that might effect the Ratings. But the Ratings are based on a very very small sample of the US viewing public so the chances of a negative difference are slim. And if they would bother to add in ad money from online views off network sites, Hulu etc and funds from digital purchases not only would they have more money the pirate argument that they aren't counted so they don't matter goes out the window. So much of what the Studios need to do is to embrace digital and give folks like Apple the rights to do what would be a vast improvement on things. Improvements I'll get to in a moment.

Then there's Cable and the ISPs. Cable and Satellite systems as we know them are beginning their death rattles and the various parties need to let them go peacefully into the night and replace them with Internet distribution. Distribution that includes allowing folks to subscribe a la carte. There's no reason why we should have to pay $50+ a month for 'basic' cable to have the right to spend another $25 each a month for premium channels like HBO. And the ISPs need to get off their weird caps, bandwidth throttling and limited price options. It would probably help if the government would kill these exclusive licenses that give Cable companies (I'm looking at you Time Warner) the only rights to whole cities and regions. More projects like the Google Fiber Access test would be excellent also. And ISPs need to stop with bogus stunts like forcing folks to pay rental charges on wireless routers and/or cable modems only to give them gear that's ages old.

And now the iTunes Stores. 

This is the biggest part of the picture and thus why I saved it for last. Each thing I'm going to mention of course comes with the caveat that the other players must do whatever is required to allow these things. But this is my vision of the ideal iTunes system for Film/TV and even Books and Music. 

Every item should be a minimum of 720p. If they can restore a movie to put it on DVD they can do this. There's really no excuse. 1080p for everything and beyond should be the goal. But starting with 720  in 2013 for the back catalog is a noble start. 

Every item should have subtitles in its native language right off. Closed caption titles being the best. There are current shows and movies lacking this and it's absurd. They have to have the titles for OTA so why not include them. Okay perhaps for some technical reason it would be hard to have them the next day but they should be pushing that within a few days it will be ready. 

Language dub and foreign subtitles should be on all titles in all stores. Believe it or not but there are folks that aren't native English speakers living in the US etc. Why deny them a pleasant experience.Visual for the blind tracks as well. All in the same downloads. No more of this having to buy something three times (Toy Story is a great example of this). Yes, like with the closed captioning it might be something that needs to come a few days later but with unlimited free downloads this isn't really a huge issue. 

Apple needs to step up and lead the way on things like h.265 and beyond development and adoption. Same with multichannel audio and higher frame rate video. Digital downloads should also strive to get closer and closer to blu-ray disks so there's no excuse to grab a disc to get said quality

Release timings
One of the biggest reasons given by pirates for why they do it is that it takes too long to get 'legal' copies. Channels like Fox force sources like Hulu etc to wait a week or more before they can release shows. Others are more obscene pulling moves like waiting a year or more (HBO). And that's just in the US. If the show comes from another country, the waits can be even worse. I'll admit that even I, die hard anti torrent as I am, is strongly tempted to snag shows like Sherlock off the 'black market' even if just a hold over until I can legally buy them. When you have shows that never cross the border legally it's even worse. So everything gets released digitally when it first goes OTA. Those that would rather watch it on the telly will wait. But those that don't should get it legal rather than not and now they can. Midnight after first OTA would be best but within a week on domestic release (so folks like HBO can show the snot out of the episode to their subscribers exclusively) or a month to go international (with the aforementioned languages and subtitles included) to all stores is still way better. 

On the movie front, same day and date as the DVDs if not before. I know that many Hollywood types freaked out about the notion of higher priced iTunes rentals between theatre release and home video, saying it would encourage folks to wait or would degrade the movie being seen the best way or worse, they would have tons of friends over and the studios would lose money. But that's bunk. If I want to see a movie in ideal form I'll go to the cinema and see it. But it's really not necessary for many if not most movies and my 60 inch telly is fine. I'm talking the Little Miss Sunshines and Rom Coms of the world. Wouldn't it be better if I have no intention of going to the cinema to have me and my six friends pay $20 to rent it now than we wait for Netflix where the Studio might get two cents or worse, we hit the torrents for a grainy poor audio 'free' copy. And again, go global. At least on the purchase release. 

Something needs to be done about this. Either lower the price or change the timings or even both. Make it rent for a week and watch it all you want. Keep the 30 days but make it more like 72 hours to finish it even if you start it on day 30, or one full view no matter how long it takes in that 30 days. But something. The current system blows. 

This is another of the big pirate reasons. The argument is that there's no paper, no disks, no shipping to stores etc. So why does digital cost the same, often for less goods, as the disks. And I have to agree. 

On the TV front it should be 99 cents for the 'half hour', $1.99 for the 'hour' and $2.99 for over an hour (like those Sherlock eps). All TV shows should have a season pass option once they are past the first season with a minimum of 20% discount over buying piece meal. And all should have Complete my Season. Movies should be say $9.99 for back list and $14.99 for new releases (defined as the first six months of home video release). That's the max pricing. Movies in particular could go under as might tv seasons (like how the CW did their $9.99 Beauty and the Beast season pass at the start of the show)

On the Pricing by Quality front, drop the SD option. One price you get all current and future quality options. And allow us to pick which quality we want or even to not download at the time of purchase. That way we can choose things like getting the 720 to save space on our iPhones and iPads or buy when something is on sale but we don't care to watch at that exact moment. 

These should be encouraged and should mirror what is on the disks. And those iTunes Extras etc should work on all devices. Also, for cases where a network or studio creates an iOS app or iBook for their features, the movie or show should also appear as a stand alone purchase for viewing on computer etc. 
In cases of massive features like the hella huge pile of stuff done for the Lord of the Rings and mixed up around like 12 box sets or the "Creating the World of Harry Potter" it would not be inappropriate to have those as a separate show much like the Doctor Who Confidential that was around for a while (if it isn't now). But reasonably priced. This would only be for those things that were created as their own sort of movie/tv documentary. Director's commentary tracks, side by side BTS etc would still be in the Extras kits. A great example of how this has been done is the Avatar release which was very like the discs'. Same for TV shows. They should have the same features, tracks as the disks would. And they should be identical from release to release. Or make the features available outside of the season set. A few months back iTunes put up a Doctor Who box set of the Matt Smith episodes. I had them all from the season sets and was peeved that there were unique 'set only' features that were different than the season ones. Not cool.

okay I know folks probably think I've gone mad. But hear me out. Digital 3d is here to stay and when it is done right and not done just to do it, the experience is not unpleasant. So strive to make those digital as well. Apple has a huge relationship with Pixar and Disney so why not start there. The sunglasses like 3d specs aren't all that uncomfortable and could probably be sold via Apple for like $20 a 4 pack. But recall that I said all qualities on the one price. That includes 3D and no going over my max pricing or making it a separate release. 

Metadata and recommendation systems
This is more an overall bit, covering music and books as well. Apple's metadata blows. It's all over the place and even missing. In a past life I worked as a Catalog assistant for a Library System. Basically data entry of details about items in our collection for the search programs. Libraries have special rules about how names and subjects are listed so that everything is the same and listed together. Apple needs this badly. There's no excuse for Chris Hart the writer of children's drawing books to be confused with Chris Hart the erotic novelist. And they need more complete information. There's zero reason why if I search for Tom Felton I only get 3 of the Harry Potter films when he was in all seven. Or I don't get his Second Sight episodes, or his songs. And so on. So something like a mash up of a library catalog and IMDB etc is more on par. 

And they need vast improvements in the whole Genius, also bought, you might like stuff. When Ping came out I thought it would be a revival of the stuff from LaLa.com with the one time play, the instant playlists, etc. If it had been perhaps it wouldn't have been a major failure. I think they should actually revive that stuff, put the whole Ping following/artist alerts bit in and meld it into the other systems to have improved data for decent recommendations and playlist building. Although I might leave out the inclusion of twitter feeds or at least make that an option. The alert bit I'm thinking about is really more letting us know when someone is releasing a new thing. And not just albums but being able to tag actors or writers as well. 

Missing things
What's this? I'm talking about having only half of an artists albums, or writers books, or my personal favorite having only some of the seasons of a show. A great example is Jeremiah. I can get season 2 but not season 1. Or how about seasons 1, 2 and 4 of Secret Diary of a Call Girl but not season 3. And no more of this dropping stuff cause this or that channel got the airing rights. iTunes should be viewed more as home video than broadcasting or even something that is both and neither at the same time. 

And get more of the older movies and older tv shows. There are folks out there that might buy some of those titles. So why not give them the chance. After seeing Richard Burgi on Desperate Housewives I might feel keen to watch his old cop show The Sentinel. Or hey, Jessica Alba was smoking in Sin City,  how about a little Dark Angel. 

So having mounted the soapbox for long enough I leave it to my humble readers. What of my thoughts appeals to you? What do you think is insane or stupid? How would you fix the system? Or would you even bother

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