The decline (and fall) of the DVR

Remember the videocassette recorder (VCR)? What a glorious piece of technology. For the first time in human history, people could record TV shows for later viewing (“time-shifting”). Freed from the shackles of when the networks offered programming, people could instead watch shows whenever it was convenient. Hooray!

The revolution moved on

And yet…about the only place you’ll find a VCR today is at electronics recycling sites. What happened? The revolution moved on. DVDs replaced cassettes.

While DVDs were a vast improvement in playback quality and convenience, they were almost never used for recording TV shows. For starters, DVD recorders were far more rare than the ubiquitous players. No matter. As it turned out, most people had never used their VCRs to record shows. It was just too complicated. Unless you planned to be home for the starting time of a show, you had to figure out how to record while you were away. A successful time-shift required that you (a) remember to insert a blank tape and rewind it if necessary (b) make sure the tape was sufficiently long to record your show, slowing the record speed as needed and (c) set the VCR to the desired television station or input setting.

Even after you overcame these hurdles, the Mt. Everest of hurdles remained: Figuring out how to program the device to start and stop at the correct time. The majority of people gave up at trying to get rid of the pesky blinking “12:00.” Even if you succeeded, you had to do it all again each time you wanted to record a show.

So most people wound up using their VCRs and DVD devices almost exclusively for playback of prerecorded material. And that’s where things stood until…

The revolution moved on…again

The digital video recorder (DVR) arrived! Suddenly, time-shifting was drop-dead simple. Want to record six different shows each on a separate station? No problem. You can even set up a season pass to record a series without needing to know exactly if or when episodes will air. And you can almost instantly select to playback any of your recordings. Fantastic!

There remain a couple of drawbacks to DVRs. For one thing, unlike with a VCR, you need to pay a monthly fee, typically to your cable company, in order to make use of the DVR. But, by now, this is a minor extension to what people are already doing. More troublesome, it’s almost impossible to make external copies of your recordings. This means that you can’t, for example, make a backup copy of a show or lend a recording to a friend—as you could easily do with videocassettes. And, should your DVR break and need to be replaced, hold on to your hat: you lose all your recorded content.

And that’s about where things stand now.

[Note: TiVos are better than most other DVRs in terms of offloading content. The latest Roamio TiVos can send recorded video to your iOS devices. And almost all TiVos can transfer shows to your computer, albeit it a painfully slow rate. Good, but still not an ideal solution.]

The revolution keeps on moving

The rumblings that signal the next major technological shift are already here: internet streaming and cloud-based video services such as iTunes, Netflix and HBO GO. Devices such as Apple TV and Roku are now serving as DVR alternatives in many households, despite the lack of any recording option. As these services and devices continue to improve, DVRs (as well as DVD and Blu-ray players) will eventually join VCRs in the dustbins of the not-too-distant future.

More substantial change is on the way. Here’s a glimpse of one possible future:

Imagine a cloud-based service that stores every movie and television show ever recorded/filmed/whatever (except perhaps movies currently in theaters and the most recent episodes of TV shows). Now imagine that you can access this immense library merely by paying a monthly fee. I expect the fee to be fairly steep by today’s standards, around $100/month. But it will be comparable to what most people are paying now for similar access (via a combination of payments to Netflix, Hulu, renting and buying movies, etc.).

As a subscriber, you will be able to stream any movie or TV show (without commercial interruptions) to any of your Internet-connected devices (TV, computer, tablet or smartphone).

You’ll also be able to watch content when you’re offline, for no additional fee. To do so, you’ll just download your desired items to your digital device. There will be some limitations here. As with current rented movies, the downloads will “expire” after a brief period of time, say a month. And there will be a limit to how many downloads you can have active at one time (perhaps a half dozen). Still, this should be more than adequate to cover your viewing for those occasions when you don’t have an Internet connection.

What about those movies you have to “own”—perhaps because you’re worried they might get removed from the cloud service someday? Once again, not a problem. There will be an option to purchase content, just as you can now do from the iTunes Store. However, because you’re also paying a monthly fee, I expect the purchase price to be cheaper than the current going rates.

There you have it: one service for just about anything you might want to watch (except for live sports and news shows), available just about anywhere and anytime you want to watch it. And no need to remember to record anything. Nirvana.

Roadblocks

The essential technology to implement this system exists today. In fact, for music, via services such as Spotify or Rdio, you can already pretty much accomplish what I’ve described here. Offering the same capability for video is not as simple. It will almost certainly require upgrades to the current Internet bandwidth. But that’s coming. I don’t consider this a dealbreaker.

The bigger question mark is whether the existing content creators and providers (Comcast, TV networks, Hollywood studios, etc.) will ever willingly go along with such a system. At present, given their track record, I’d have to say no. They will certainly put up a fight — a big fight — similar to what they are now doing with Aereo. But they do this with every outside challenge to the status quo, dating as far back as when Hollywood railed against television as a dire threat to its survival.

[Note: Aereo, although much more limited in scope than what I have proposed here, offers a feature not included in my proposal: it can function as a cloud-based DVR for live broadcasts. If this too became widespread, it would be another nail in the coffin for the traditional DVR.]

Still, I remain optimistic that, when a strongly desirable technological advance becomes practical, as is the case here, it cannot be blocked indefinitely. As the forces of change gather steam, the opposing parties will reluctantly make the necessary concessions while at the same time figuring out a way to continue to make money. Yes, there will be some losers as well as winners. But that’s how progress happens.

Something of this sort may well be what Apple has been trying to cobble together with its yet unannounced but long-rumored venture into television. If so, it would explain why they are having such a difficult time bringing it to market. Getting all the relevant parties on board is a balancing act that even Steve Jobs might have been unable to pull off. Regardless, I expect we’ll see the fruits of Apple’s labors sometime within the next year.

The other possibility is that Apple fumbles the ball and someone else (such as Comcast) picks it up and runs with it. I hope not. The result probably won’t be nearly as good for consumers as what Apple would have done.

Whoever succeeds and however they do it, one thing is certain: Change is coming and, when it arrives, it will be curtains for the DVR.

Posted in Apple Inc, Entertainment, Movies, Technology, Television | 2 Comments

The cost of a digital life

If you’re single, start with your monthly smartphone bill. Double that if you share expenses with a spouse who also has a smartphone. Or, if you have some sort of shared “family rate,” use that number.

Now add whatever you pay for Internet access.

Next take your monthly cable (or satellite of whatever) television subscription.

If you’re as connected as I am, these three costs combined could equal or exceed $360 per month. That’s $4320 per year.

But don’t stop there. Let’s move on to all your monthly and annual fees that exist only because the Internet exists.

For openers, let’s assume you have Netflix streaming. Count Amazon Prime if you mainly joined to have access to their streaming videos. Add these two together and you have almost another $200 per year.

Do you pay for something like Backblaze to backup your data to the cloud? Do you pay for cloud storage to Dropbox or iCloud or anything similar? If so, toss those in.

What about music subscriptions services such as Spotify or Rdio or even iTunes Match?

Do you pay to subscribe to digital versions of magazines/newspapers? If so, count them, unless you would have otherwise paid to have a print subscription.

Finally, add in any other Internet-based fees that you pay on a regular basis, from website hosting to VPN networking.

The combined total will obviously vary a lot from person to person. For me, it comes to about $4800 per year, or about $400/month. For most people who are active Internet users, I believe the number will be similar.

Remember, this is all money spent on services that largely did not exist twenty years ago! And the amount we spend each year seems to only get bigger — as newly emerging services become commonplace to the point of becoming “essential.”

If you’ve wondered why you have more trouble coming up with the money to pay your bills each month, even when most of your major expenses (rent, food, etc.) remain stable, now you know.

Posted in Technology | Leave a comment

MacFixIt is gone

MacFixIt is gone.

Sometime last week, apparently without any formal announcement (aside from a tweet), CNET dropped the MacFixIt name from its site. As of now, if you go to www.macfixit.com, it takes you instead to CNET>Computers.

In response, Topher Kessler, who had been the primary contributor to MacFixIt under CNET, has started a new troubleshooting-focused site called MacIssues. I wish him luck.

I began MacFixIt in 1996. After managing the site for four years, and watching it grow to a level I had never imagined possible, I sold MacFixIt to TechTracker in 2000. I remained as editor until 2002. I continued to write a monthly column (mac.column.ted) for MacFixIt until 2009. Beyond that, after resigning as editor, I no longer had anything to do with the site.

TechTracker did a fine job of maintaining MacFixIt in the years after my departure. I felt a bit like the parent who nurtures their child until adulthood and then watches as the child continues successfully out on their own. [To read my look back at MacFixIt’s first decade (1996-2006), as originally posted on the site, click here.]

In 2007, CNET purchased TechTracker, including MacFixIt. This resulted in a dramatic transformation of MacFixIt. In my opinion, it was not a good change. While the MacFixIt name was retained, the site soon lost its distinct character. It was even hard to find the “site,” if you didn’t already know the URL; it was awkwardly located under the “Reviews” section of CNET. After a while, it seemed to me that there was little point in CNET keeping the MacFixIt name alive. I guess CNET finally came to the same conclusion.

[Note: Most of the site's content remains on CNET, at least for now (for example, click here). However, you'll likely have to do a Google search to find any of it.]

MacFixIt had a great run. It survived 18 years, almost to the day. That’s a very long time in Internet years. I remain quite proud of the site and all that it accomplished.

I’ve said goodbye to MacFixIt in various ways over the years. The time has now come for me to give it my last goodbye.

Posted in Apple Inc, General, Mac | 26 Comments

Why I look forward to CarPlay

Apple announced CarPlay yesterday, its renamed iOS in the Car technology that gives drivers of compatible automobiles direct access to iPhone features connected via the Lightning cable. The first cars to include CarPlay are due out before the end of the year.

Existing car systems can already do something similar: a driver can access an iPhone to play music using the car’s built-in software. With CarPlay, it’s more like the iPhone takes over the car’s user interface, offering access to music, maps, text messaging and various other apps. In some cars, you may still have to use physical buttons and dials with CarPlay, but the better systems will provide a touchscreen much like the iPhone itself.

I’m very much looking forward to CarPlay. In fact, I’m certain that the next car I buy will have it (given that I’m years away from a car purchase, that’s a safe bet).

As I see it, there’s a big upside and a smaller downside to CarPlay.

The upside

The big upside is the “unification” of disparate systems.

For example, as it stands now, if I want to set up directions for a trip prior to getting into my car, I can do it on my iPhone. Even better, I can do it on my Mac, using Maps, and have it automatically transfer to my iPhone. In either case, it offers no connection to my car’s built-in GPS navigation system. Once in the car, I would either have to depend on the iPhone (probably using a windshield mount so I could see it while driving) or re-enter the data in my car’s system.

If I wind up taking my wife’s car on another occasion, I confront a navigation system that’s different both from the ones in my iPhone and my car. It’s admittedly a “first world problem” — but I have the hassle of dealing with three separate independent systems. It works fairly well in spite of this, but it could work a lot better.

Enter CarPlay. If both of our cars had CarPlay, I could enter an address on my iPhone, connect it to either car and have the directions instantly accessible, with both cars using almost the exact same familiar iPhone-like interface. Perfect!

Now imagine that rental cars came with CarPlay. I could preload my iPhone with various destinations points, prior to a vacation. When I pick up my rental car, I attach the iPhone and…presto…I’m good to go.

Accessing music, either via my iTunes Library or via streaming services such as Spotify, would similarly be simplified and unified across vehicles. The iPhone interface would replace the often awkward controls in current car systems. For example, with the system in my wife’s Nissan Leaf, there is no Pause button to halt a song that is playing.

You get the same “unification” benefits for making phone calls. Finally, CarPlay offers capabilities not available in most existing car systems, such as the option to send and receive text messages.

With CarPlay’s inclusion of Siri, almost all actions can be accomplished via voice commands and spoken responses — allowing you to keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel.

I wouldn’t buy a car today, no matter how good it otherwise is, unless it came with a USB port and was compatible with my iPhone. It’s easy to stick to this requirement because almost every current car meets it. Within a few years, I expect the same will be true for CarPlay. That’s why I can be confident that my next car will include CarPlay. It’s not essential yet, but the day is coming.

The downside

Despite all of these advantages, there remains one likely downside to CarPlay. CarPlay-equipped cars may be dependent on an iPhone. This is not so for current car systems. For example, with my Ford Fusion, I can use its built-in GPS even if I don’t have my iPhone with me.

I’m still not exactly sure how carmakers will bundle CarPlay. But I expect there will be an option to have CarPlay installed in lieu of a built-in GPS. Such a setup might similarly eschew other “smart” features that would otherwise be built-in to the car. With this type of setup, you are dependent on the iPhone to access the absent features. That will mostly be just fine with me. After all, using the iPhone is the whole point of CarPlay. Still, I’m sure there will be times when I (or someone else driving my car) would be prefer a built-in system.

I am hopeful that, to compensate for this downside, CarPlay will be significantly less expensive than current car systems. After all, with the iPhone doing all of the heavy lifting, CarPlay should cost less to install. But who knows? If carmakers believe they can successfully sell CarPlay at current premium prices, I’m sure that’s what they’ll do.

At least in the beginning, I expect there will be an additional option to have a combined traditional system and CarPlay installation. This will allow you to have your proverbial cake and eat it too — but at a presumably higher cost.

No matter what the installation details turn out to be, and despite whatever competition emerges, CarPlay will be successful. We’ll see a rapidly expanding popularity of the technology over the next few years. And the more widespread CarPlay becomes, the more useful it will be for iPhone owners to have CarPlay — creating a sort of positive feedback loop. Similarly, the more prevalent CarPlay becomes, the more incentive there will be to own an iPhone. And that, of course, will be good news for Apple.

Posted in Apple Inc, iOS, iPhone, Mac, Technology | 3 Comments