October 31, 2008

Why I returned my Apple TV

In my continuing quest to make my life easier, I thought I'd try Apple TV to avoid driving to the video store (which is long past being tolerable to me), and to get some actual HD content for my year-old HDTV.

Like many things Apple, it is brilliant in so many ways, while falling flat in others. In this case, the problems, interestingly, are interface and content. They nailed the core issues (which is why I bought it in the first place), which are ease of access and integration. You can browse the store on your TV (without having to use your computer), download stuff - and automatically sync with your computer and iPhone so all your stuff is wherever you want it, and all automatically backed up. But this is where the magic ends.

The interface, while glossy, lush and beautiful, is hugely harmed by that puny little remote control. After using the Tivo for a year, and enjoying the world's best remote control, Apple's was just too pathetic to use. It is so small that it was at huge risk of being lost, and we had to institute strict family rules about its placement. The buttons are so hard to press, that I actually started to get AppleTV-thumb and had to switch fingers to press it. And the interface is totally image based - there is no way to link through metadata. You can't find an interesting movie, and look for others with the same actor, etc.

As for content, well at first glance it looks good, but it just isn't very deep. I knew the numbers were low compared to other options, but I didn't realize that the HD content is almost nonexistent. And given that my tastes don't seem to run in the same direction as Apple's very mainstream content, I could only find a handful of HD movies that I actually wanted to watch.

Then, just as I began to realize that these were going to be very high priced movies for which I would also have to endure a pained thumb, Netflix announced their upcoming distribution for 12,000 shows on Tivo. I had one day left to return my Apple TV, and so I did.

Steve Jobs has been calling Apple TV his "hobby", to avoid the criticism about it's lackluster performance. I should have listened to him.

October 29, 2008

PPTPlex - Zoomable presentations not quite yet for the masses

Figuring out the clearest and most engaging way to communicate ideas is fundamentally important. The world seems to have settled on just a few key approaches: Text, video, and computer presentations along the lines of PowerPoint (or Keynote). The latter, as we all know, are valuable for their ease of creation, and ubiquity of authoring tools. However, they also tend to be boring, and in presentations of any length, the audience can get lost and not know where they are.

I created a PowerPoint plugin called CounterPoint back in 2001 with then grad student Lance Good. It offered a pretty sophisticated mechanism to create zoomable presentations consisting of PowerPoint slides. But the authoring tool was pretty clunky, and its dependency on Java made deployment pretty difficult.

So, I was delighted to see that Microsoft Labs recently put out PPTPlex, which is remarkably similar in spirit to CounterPoint. They created a plugin for PowerPoint which makes a reasonable trade-off of much, much more accessible and simpler authoring tools - and much less creative flexibilty. Still, this is probably the right move to consider commercializing this kind of approach. I was delighted to try it out, and sure enough, the authoring was simple enough that I was able to create a 70 slide "vision" talk on the future of HCI (with Allison Druin) using it quite readily.

Sadly, I wasn't able to use PPTPlex for my presentation because the technology was just not up to it. It seems to rasterize every slide - which not only takes a long time, but uses a *huge* amount of memory. My presentation actually used over a Gigabyte of RAM! And then PowerPoint (with PPTPlex) crashed. So, instead, I tried something else.

I was able to duplicate most of the visual feel that PPTPlex offered entirely with plain vanilla PowerPoint animations. I suffered by performing unnatural acts with PowerPoint to build the animations I wanted - but my PowerPoint ninja buddy John SanGiovanni had taught me the art, so I created the following presentation which I presented with Allison Druin at CMU last month. Take a look - and be sure to look at the PowerPoint presentation (15 MB) in Show mode to see the full transitions.

What do you think?

October 27, 2008

The wonder of single tasking

The NY Times has yet another article on the inherent human limitations of multitasking (some previous ones here, here, and here). While we all love to do several things at once, the reality is that we can't do so effectively, and there is more and more research that supports this.

This is one of those issues where we all know this essential truth, but just don't follow it. And the nature of innovation means that we will have more and more communication and information technologies (think historically: phone, email, web, IM, texting, social networks, etc.) And there are plenty of researchers trying to figure how the best way to interrupt you to deliver more information.

So, at the moment, this means people actually have to take responsibility for themselves while we interface designers figure out how to bring these disparate information sources together in a way that increases, not decreases focus. I've discussed this before and just wrote a new essay relating these issues to how children read online.

October 1, 2008

AT&T still nasty about service plans

So, you thought you remembered reading about how the cell phone carriers were going to be getting friendlier to their customers about their service contract cancellation policies? Ha!

I am as loyal an AT&T customer as you are likely to find. I have a $200 monthly bill with three lines. My 3rd line is for software development, and I brought my own phone to the plan - that is, I did not use a carrier subsidy to discount the price of the phone. So, imagine my suprise (ok, not really) when I called to cancel this third line. I was told that not only would they charge me a cancellation fee of $175, but that despite the news recently of them prorating these cancellation fees, they would not prorate my cancellation fee. Why? Because I had a pre-existing contract, and they were only pro-rating new contracts. (And how can they justify a two-year contract when they didn't provide a subsidy? Because they can.)

To make matters worse, when I asked to speak with a manager, they said that "no manager was available", and that they had a policy of not calling customers back - but I was free to try to call again later.

Boy is AT&T lucky they have an exclusive deal with Apple. I sure hope that Google's efforts to make a more competitive marketplace for communications services gets some traction.

For the record, here are the details of my call:
  • "no manager available" - Wed at 9:30am EST. Wouldn't call back when one was available.
  • My service is for 3 lines, $200/month, 3rd line for 1 yr 4 mo
  • The line I was trying to cancel was with my own phone and had no carrier subsidy
  • They still would charge a $175 cancellation charge that wasn't pro-rated - this policy started in last three months and isn't applied retroactively.
  • I spoke with "Hela"