Apple Event Preview

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The days leading up to an Apple event – and in particular an iPhone event – are some of the biggest days of the year in the tech blogosphere, and I have been so busy I haven’t been able to post about it (though I do keep the Twitter widget active at all times). At this point everything that will be leaked has been leaked and all the predictions are in. Rather than re-invent the wheel, The verge and CNET have pretty thorough articles previewing what to expect at tomorrow’s Apple event, being held in Cupertino at 10 AM PT/1 PM ET.

Here are the expected highlights:

Two new iPhones: An updated iPhone (probably iPhone 5S) that will look very similar to the iPhone 5 but will feature a fingerprint sensor on the home button, increased storage capacity, brighter display, dual LED flash, and a gold option, and a new lower budget iPhone (possibly iPhone 5C) with plastic case that will come in many colors.

A completely redesigned iOS 7 that gives iOS a sleeker look and many new features.

iTunes Radio, a Pandora-like service that integrates with iTunes and the iTunes Store.

Apple TV will see a software update to allow a Person A to share content purchased on iTunes on Person B’s Apple TV, as well as the addition of iTunes Radio. Contrary to earlier reports, there will probably not be any new Apple TV hardware unveiled tomorrow.

New iPad or iPad Mini hardware is also unlikely.

To follow the event live, The Verge and CNET both keep good liveblogs, and I’ll try to keep the Twitter widget active.

Google I/O 2013: subscription music service, unified messaging, and improved gaming, Maps and Search, and more

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Google’s much-anticipated Google I/O 2013 developers conference began today and Google announced some interesting new features and products.  Google’s blog entry is pretty comprehensive and definitely worth a read, and here’s a quick rundown of what was unveiled:

- Google Play Music All Access: a $9.99 per month ($7.99 if previewed by the end of June) music service akin to Spotify that allows unlimited on-demand plays and custom playlists.

- Google Play games: coordinates multiplayer games and syncing of game data across devices.

- Samsung Galaxy S4 Google edition: an unlocked Galaxy S4 that runs stock Android and will receive updates directly from Google rather than from Samsung.  It’s not a Nexus device because Google did not design the hardware, but it is the next best thing.  It runs on AT&T and T-Mobile’s LTE networks and will be sold by Google for $650.

- Google Chrome: enhancements to how video is streamed, payments are processed, as well as “Chrome Experiments” to show the cool graphical and gaming capabilities of Chrome.  These enhancements are largely designed to encourage developers to create more graphics-intensive applications for Chrome.

- Google+: an improved multi-column Stream with suggested hashtags based on the post, a free-standing Hangouts app (available on Android, iOS, and Chrome) that is meant to unify chatting and includes some really interesting group and video features, and enhancements to Photos that automatically back-up photos taken by mobile devices and sift through them to choose the best to share.

A note about Google Hangouts:  In my opinion, Google Hangouts and the All Access music service were the two biggest announcements today and I feel that Google did not make enough of an effort to really promote Hangouts.  Gmail and gchat are pretty universally liked and used, but for whatever reason people have an aversion to Google+ despite how great of a service it is.  I think Google would have been much wiser to announce Hangouts as a freestanding multi-platform messaging service that integrates with Google+ rather than putting Hangouts right in the middle of the Google+ presentation and making it look like a service of Google+.  Regardless, so far the app looks and works great.

- Search: Search now includes spoken questions and answers on computers running Chrome, and Google Now adds more reminder-related features, like dictated notes and reminder cards for new music, movies, books, and TV shows.

- Maps: the browser-based Maps will now be full-screen and the map will be drawn based on what Google thinks we want to know.  For example, if you search for restaurants, the map will be drawn to show other similar restaurants that Google thinks you’ll like, and directions to the restaurant you select.

Overall Google made some interesting announcements today, with the two common themes being integrating various devices that run Chrome and Android and adding more and better prediction to the information Google gives us.

Amazon announces AutoRip program that gives free MP3 versions of purchased CDs

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Today Amazon announced AutoRip, a new feature that allows free instant downloads of MP3 versions of CDs purchased from Amazon, and will retroactively provide MP3 versions of CDs purchased from Amazon dating back to 1998. The MP3s files will be stored in a user’s Cloud Player and will not count against storage limits, just like MP3s purchased independent of CDs.

Although MP3s are becoming more popular than CDs, I still prefer CDs for many reasons. First, CDs have much better audio quality than MP3 files and I like having a high quality version of my music from which to rip MP3s in case the current bitrate available for purchase (256 or 320 kbps) is someday made obselete. For all we know, the MP3 format could someday even become obsolete. So having a physical CD will allow me to re-rip my music at a higher bitrate or a different format if trends change. Second, there are some questions regarding the extent of our ownership of downloaded MP3 files, most of which are used pursuant to a license and are not actually owned. This issue came to the forefront a few months ago when it was erroneously reported that Bruce Willis planned to challenge Apple on the issue of whether he can transfer his digital music collection by will after he dies. So I like having a CD that is mine without any fine print or conditions. Finally, I see a CD as a collector’s item, and I like having the album artwork and booklet, and it is fun to open a new CD and look around or look through old CDs. For the MP3 albums I have purchased on a whim and grow to like, I generally end up missing that tangible CD and album booklet.

This isn’t to say that buying MP3s instead of CDs doesn’t have advantages. I like being able to instantly download an MP3 rather than have to go to a store and buy a CD or order one online, then rip the CD to MP3 when I get home, and then get it onto my playback device of choice. And MP3s albums can often be found on sale for $5 or less, which is a difficult price point for CDs to compete with. Finally, MP3 stores allow us to buy a song or two off an album without buying the whole album.

So, this is all a long-winded way of saying that I like the new AutoRip feature because it lets customers who like having physical CDs continue to get those physical CDs without sacrificing the immediate gratification that comes with purchasing MP3s, and it may encourage people who normally just purchase MP3s to spend a few extra dollars and get the CDs too. And Amazon is in a unique position as a seller of both physical and digital goods to offer this feature, so I think it is a good business move.

For more info, here’s Amazon’s Press Release.

Apple Unveils the iPhone 5

Apple unveiled its highly-anticipated next-generation iPhone, the iPhone 5, today. Here are some of the most notable changes that the iPhone 5 brings:

  • Larger display:  The 3.5″ 960×640 4:3 display (dubbed a “retina display” based on pixel density by Apple) found on previous iPhone models was increased to a 4″ 1136×640 16:9 widescreen display.  The increased size is due to the display being elongated vertically; in other words, it remains the same width, but adds an additional 176 rows of pixels to the length of the display.  While on a homescreen, this change adds another row of icons.  Developers will be able to modify their apps to make use of the additional space, or current apps will be centered on the display with black bars on the top and bottom, akin to how widescreen movies looked on older4:3 television sets.  The display also has 44% better color saturation than previous models.
  • LTE capability:  The iPhone 5 can now connect to faster 4G LTE networks.  There will be GSM and CDMA versions, unlike the iPhone 4S which ran on both CDMA and GSM networks.
  • Lighting connector:  Apple has done away with the 30-pin connector that it introduced with the iPod and replaced it with a smaller connector that works whichever way one plugs it in.  Apple said this was necessary to make the iPhone 5 thinner.  It appears the Lightning connector will become the standard across all portable Apple devices, and Apple said audio manufacturers are already implementing the new connector in their clock radios, docks, etc.  Apple will also sell converters for older devices.
  • Improved camera:  In what has become a standard Apple improvement, Apple has made the iPhone cameras better.  The rear “iSight” camera remains 8 megapixels but adds faster photo capture, better low light performance, and panorama mode.  The rear-facing camera will still record video at 1080p, but adds face detection and the ability to take photos while recording.  Of note is that the iSight camera is protected by sapphire crystal, which is very scratch resistant and is the material used on luxury watches.  The front-facing FaceTime camera has been upgraded from VGA (0.3 megapixels) to 1.2 megapixels, and it records 720p video.
  • A6 Chip:  Apple claims that the A6 chip used in the iPhone 5 will give it 8 hours of browsing time using LTE.
  • iOS 6 and Apple Maps:  The iPhone 5 will come with iOS 6, which has switched from Google Maps to an Apple mapping software which adds turn-by-turn navigation and flyover mode.
  • Thinner and lighter:  In what has become another Apple standard improvement, the iPhone 5 is 18% thinner (at 7.6 mm) and 20% lighter (at 112 grams).
  • EarPod headphones:  Apple redesigned the headphones that will come with the iPhone – they said it took 3 years! – and claim that they fit and sound better.
  • A third mic:  Apple added a third microphone to the iPhone – now there is one on the front, one on the back, and one on the bottom – that are supposed to work to cancel out background noise while on the phone.

All in all, I would say the iPhone 5 is a good, solid phone, but it is more of a catch-up with other smartphones than it is a standard-setting, industry-leading device.  It does look beautiful, and the increased screen size and LTE capability were both necessary improvements at this stage.  However, so many of the features can already be found on other devices: LTE has been on smartphones for a year and a half, 4.5″ and larger displays are really the standard, the pixel density found in the “retina display” is no longer that remarkable, there are already phones that are thinner and lighter, an 8 MP rear- and 1.2 MP front-facing camera is pretty commonplace, panorama mode was included in Android Ice Cream Sandwich almost a year ago, the ability to use FaceTime over a cellular network only catches it up to other video-conferencing programs, and I would say the booming headphone business makes the EarPods less of a draw.

And of course, the change in mapping software is also a catch-up in a way.  iOS devices have traditionally had a stripped-down Google Maps that doesn’t include turn-by-turn navigation and has more limited search results (for example, if I search “restaurant” on my iPad Maps it will return only the ten nearest results, and if I want to see restaurants in a new area I have to re-center the map and search again, while on my Galaxy Nexus Google Maps will return all restaurants, and keep showing more results as I scroll to other areas.)  I am not sure who is to blame for the stripped-down Google Maps, but better mapping software with navigation was much-needed, so in a way the new Apple Maps is an improvement.  That being said, I think Google Maps is the best and most widely-used mapping software out there, and I think the iPhone 5 would have been better off with an improved Google Maps app.

Another area where the iPhone 5 really disappointed me is the lack of NFC (Near Field Communication).  NFC allows for a variety of applications, most notably using a phone to pay for items at checkout by tapping the phone on the credit card reader in a store.  Google Wallet is a popular platform for this, but NFC allows for a variety of software.  While NFC hasn’t quite hit the mainstream yet and stores that make use of the technology are in the minority, it is a technology that is being implemented more and more and has the potential to be revolutionary.  I think Apple really dropped the ball by not including it.  Maybe most customers won’t miss it, but for a company that prides itself on innovation, Apple should have included it.

* * *

I understand that Apple can’t release a product that changes the industry with each new iteration of the iPhone, and perhaps the lukewarm reception the iPhone 4S and the iPhone 5 has seen is a result of Apple setting the bar very high for itself.  But the bottom line is that the mobile industry is moving at a lightning-fast pace and releasing a thinner and lighter phone with beefed up specs each year won’t cut it in the long-run, and where a few years ago competitors would be racing to put out products that can compete with the iPhone after an iPhone announcement, now I can’t really see anything that Google or Android device manufacturers need to implement in order to compete with the iPhone 5.  And from what I hear Windows Phone 8 is going to be very impressive when it is released in a few months.

The iPhone 5 will no doubt be a commercial success, and there is a huge market of people who are invested in the Apple/iTunes ecosystem and/or who think the iPhone is the simplest solution for them and/or are scared of change, but just like how RIM had so many invested users who fled when a better product came out, a f light from which RIM still has not recovered, the same could happen to Apple.  I can see it now: people looking back at the iPhone the way I look back at my tiny BlackBerry Pearl, and laughing about how small the screen is and how dull the static grid of icons looks.  Now, I’m being a little facetious, and Apple, unlike RIM, does have sort of an all-encompassing ecosystem that includes music, movies, TV, computers, and printers, and that ecosystem encourages people to stay with Apple, but I think my point is still valid.  I would like to see Apple come out with something that sets a new standard in the tech world in this post-Steve Jobs era, because any company releasing better technology benefits the entire industry.

For more on the iPhone 5, check out Apple, CNETThe VergeEngadget, Gizmodo, BGR, and The New York Times.

Worth noting is that Apple also unveiled a new iPod Touch, iPod Nano, and iTunes software today.

PSA: DO NOT buy expensive HDMI cables

This is not exactly news, but it’s a story worth telling…

Yesterday I went with a friend to Best Buy to help him pick out a TV for his new apartment. I was tagging along as an expert of sorts, if you think knowing that plasma sets have a wider viewing angle and darker blacks and LED sets are thinner and use less power makes me an expert. Anyway, after picking out a TV and Blu-ray Player, I told my friend not to spend a lot of money on HDMI cables because all HDMI cables with the same rating produce the same quality picture and sound. And by “same quality” I mean same exact quality, not “the difference is imperceptible to most people” or “the difference is not worth the price.” As HDMI carries a digital signal, it will either work or not work; and different cables, provided they all work, will not produce crisper audio or video. So we picked out a very inexpensive Dynex HDMI cable rated “High Speed with Ethernet” that was $10 for 4 feet. The salesman, who had been nice and knowledgeable up until this point, tried to upsell us to a “better” HDMI cable because “for a TV this size (50″) you will notice the difference in quality.” We went with the cheaper cable.

I was pretty sure of myself on this issue, but when I got home I double-checked my research.  I discovered that I was, in fact, correct: there is absolutely no difference in the picture or sound quality produced by cheap HDMI cables versus expensive HDMI cables, provided they both have the same rating (“High Speed” is best for 1080p video content). So a High Speed generic cable from Amazon or Monoprice produces the same result as a High Speed Monster cable. I researched several reputable websites, below, and every single one came to the same conclusion based both on science and on real-life performance. I was unable to find any websites that said otherwise. The only times where more expensive cables may be worth considering are long distance/in-wall installations and when the cables will be connected and disconnected often, both of which may require sturdier cables. But for a standard 4′, 6′, or 12′ cable, the consensus is pretty unanimous: cheap cables produce the exact same quality result as expensive cables. Here are some blurbs:

CNET: Why all HDMI cables are the same:

[The picture is] either exactly what it’s supposed to be, or it fails and looks like one of the images above [with white pixels known as "sparkles"]. In order for one HDMI cable to have “better picture quality” than another, it would imply that the final result between the source and display could somehow be different. It’s not possible. It’s either everything that was sent, or full of very visible errors (sparkles). The image cannot have more noise, or less resolution, worse color, or any other picture quality difference. The pixels can’t change. They can either be there (perfect, yay!) or not (nothing, errors, boo!).

All the claims about differences in picture quality are remnants of the analog days, which were barely valid then and not at all valid now. There is no way for different cables to create a different color temperature, change the contrast ratio, or anything else picture quality-wise.

Consumer Reports: HDMI cables: Once again, don’t spend more than you need to:

We’ve long been advocates of not paying for pricey cables, which often do little more than pad the pockets of the manufacturers that make them and the retailers that sell them…

So to be clear, unless you plan to regularly disconnect and reconnect components, where it might make sense to buy pricier, sturdier cables with more rugged connectors—or you require very long HDMI cable runs, more than 30 feet—any high-speed-rated cable should suffice. And don’t let a package or retail associate tell you otherwise.

Popular Mechanics: Brand-Name HDMI Cables: Are They Worth It?:

The fact is, HDMI is digital, meaning you either get the feed or you don’t. High prices and gimmicks like gold-plating don’t affect 1s and 0s. Our advice: Purchase your wiring online for cheap, and use the saved money to upgrade to a larger flat screen.”

Crutchfield: The Ins and Outs of HDMI:

You won’t see dramatic differences in picture quality among HDMI cables. Unlike analog video transmission, which can display varying degrees of picture quality, digital video transmission typically delivers a clean, clear picture or no picture at all.

In short, all High Speed HDMI cables should produce identical pictures and sound, so don’t let creative marketing or the hope to avoid “cheap” components talk you into spending more than $10 on an HDMI cable.

 

And on a lighter note, if you want a good laugh check out this $1,095 3.3′ HDMI cable at Best Buy.  The Customer Reviews are worth a read.

Apple TV adds Hulu Plus to its lineup

Hulu Plus announced today that Hulu Plus programming is now available on Apple TV. When I turned on my Apple TV a few hours ago, it was there with no need to update my software.

I am not a Hulu Plus subscriber, but this is still good news to me because it makes me more optimistic that Apple TV will expand its content offerings as rumors suggest.

As I have said before, Apple TV works flawlessly but offers limited content. Having an iOS device and now an OS X Mountain Lion computer adds some possibilities by allowing streaming of content via Airplay, but as a freestanding unit, Apple TV’s only real content channels that the average consumer will be interested in are the iTunes Store, Netflix, and YouTube. Yes, it does offer other options, such as NHL, NBA, MLB and Wall Street Journal subscription channels, but I think the draw and practicality in those options is very limited and most people will subscribe to at most one of those channels. And add on that many Blu-ray players and HDTVs now come with Netflix and Youtube capabilities, and Apple TV really starts to look like an Apple/iTunes accessory and very cool gadget as opposed to a must-have device that serves as an intermediary between internet content and TV/home theater systems. So, in sum, Apple TV could really use more content.

Getting more content is easier said than done, though.

-For starters, a lot of the channels that I would like to see on Apple TV – Pandora, Slacker Radio, and channels from providers such as NBC and TBS – directly compete with Apple’s iTunes Store. Apple has opened up its iOS devices that also play iTunes content to these competing channels, but often on Apple TV, the best way to get the highest quality new content is through the iTunes Store, and Apple may be reluctant to give up that quasi-monopoly. But Apple has shown its willingness to do just that by allowing Netflix and Hulu Plus on Apple TV, so I think that Apple is moving in the direction of having its settop box allow for varied (read: both Apple and non-Apple) content.

-Apple would need to release its SDK (software development kit) to allow developers to make content channels for Apple TV. It is rumored that Apple will do that this Fall with the release of iOS 6, but that is speculation at this point.

-Finally, unlike iOS apps that have widely-varied user interfaces, content channels on Apple TV all use a uniform UI. Unless Apple relinquishes that high level of control over content channels, which I doubt it will, Apple would need give developers detailed specifications and ensure that the apps conform to those specifications – and possibly modify them – before they are added to the Apple TV lineup. This could be a time-consuming endeavor considering potentially hundreds of content-providers could develop channels for Apple TV. I have no doubt that Apple has the resources to do this, but the question is whether Apple will want to devote that time to allowing competition onto Apple TV.

* * *

Apple TV works great and has that “cool” factor, but it could use additional content. Hulu Plus is a good start, and I’m hoping there are more new channels to come. Of course, all this streaming being done with Apple TV and other settop boxes, that in some cases can even allow consumers to cancel their cable TV service and only stream content, begs the question of whether internet service providers, who often are also cable providers, will start to put caps on data in order to encourage customers to keep their cable service. Cox already has caps, and Time Warner Cable is testing out optional tiered data plans for some Texas customers. But landline data-capping is an issue for another time, and for now I just want the best Apple TV possible.

Anyway, here is a list of some channels I’d like to see on Apple TV, largely based on what content providers have adopted the iPad as a content platform:

-CNN
-NBC
-TBS
-TNT
-ABC
-AMC
-Crackle
-Slacker
-Pandora
-Vevo
-WatchESPN (is a moot point for me since Cablevision/Optimum, my cable provider, doesn’t participate)
-Masters and US Open golf tournaments (each have great iPad apps that stream multiple live feeds during tournaments)
-Google Play Music (which is VERY wishful thinking)

VIZIO Co-Star next-generation Google TV set-top box is available for pre-order for $99

Several months ago I was in the market for a set-top streaming device that was to be a birthday gift. The choices then were Apple TV or wait for the next generation of Google TV units to come out, which wouldn’t be until this summer at the earliest. Technically, I also could have gone with the discontinued-yet-still-available-on-the-internet Logitech Revue, which is a Google TV device running outdated software, but it would’ve been obsolete out of the box and I couldn’t get past Logitech’s lazyness in not updating the Logitech Harmony for Revue remote app to support Android devices running Ice Cream Sandwich.

VIZIO has now entered the market with a Google TV set-top box called the VIZIO Co-Star and VIZIO began taking pre-orders on it for $99 yesterday. At the start of writing this entry, the Co-Star was listed as “out of stock,” but is now back to being available. Regardless of whether it is in stock currently, I think this device would’ve given me a real tough decision had it been out last winter when I made the plunge into Apple TV-land.

The Co-Star is a compact square device that measures 4.2″ across and 1.6″ high, and it comes with a two-sided remote – one side with typical controls and a trackpad and the other side with a QWERTY keyboard. There is also a remote control app that can be downloaded on Android phones and tablets. The device has an HDMI in and out jack, a USB port, and wifi, ethernet, DLNA and Bluetooth connectivity. It displays content with up to 1080p resolution with 3D, and up to 5.1 channels of audio pass through (meaning that to get surround sound, the unit will have to connect to a receiver that can decode the audio signal).

Google TV and the Co-Star is designed to be hooked up in-line with the cable or satellite box as opposed to as a separate component, and it allows the viewer to search internet content while watching TV and vice versa. It also comes with the Google Chrome browser with Adobe Flash support, and access to apps in the Play Store. Finally, there is also a search function that allows the viewer to search content on live TV, the internet, and apps, though one wonders whether Apple will feel this is an infringing unified search. I do not see anything about an Airplay-equivalent streaming feature for Android phones and tablets.

I must say I am intrigued by the Co-Star. I like the idea of being able to combine live TV with streaming services rather than use my set-top box in isolation, and I also like the ability to download apps from the Play Store. While I am glad I got Apple TV and I think it works pretty flawlessly, it is limited in content and without an iOS device there really isn’t that much to do with it besides iTunes, Netflix, and YouTube. I would like to see Apple open up the App Store to Apple TV and let users download basic apps like Pandora and Vevo so we wouldn’t have to rely on streaming audio and video content via AirPlay from iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch, and I don’t think doing so would harm the sales of iOS devices either. Aple has been rumored to be adding this functionality for months, but so far it hasn’t happened. By allowing apps to be downloaded with the Co-Star, Google gives users so many more content options, including shows, movies, music, news programs and games.

To me, an area where downloading apps would really come in handy is music. Right now I maintain my music library in both Google Music and iTunes. To get Apple TV to play my music, I either have to stream from my iPad or computer’s iTunes library, or pay $25 a year for iTunes Match; there is unfortunately no ability to interface with my 160 GB iPod Classic via USB and play from its library, and also no ability to store music on the Apple TV itself. So streaming music from Google Music using the Co-Star without having to use any other devices would be great. And again, being able to stream music from other sources such as Pandora or Slacker Radio without having to involve another device is also a really nice feature.

As with all other new devices, the success of the Co-Star will be determined by how smoothly it works. So far all we know is that there is demand for a Google TV set-top box – even sight unseen – in the $100 price-range. I look forward to reading reviews – VIZIO links to four positive reviews on its product page but it looks like the reviewers had no or limited hands-on time with the device, so I will keep an eye out for more thorough reviews.

Also worth noting, especially since I somehow missed the product announcement, is that Sony released a Google TV set-top box for $199 a few weeks ago. I’m out of steam to get into details, but it looks pretty good, but the pricetag is a little high considering the competition.

Here’s VIZIO’s commercial for the Co-Star:

Technology Week in Review

Apple v. Samsung Patent Litigation:
Things keep getting more and more complicated in this patent battle. Last week Judge Lucy Koh of the United Stated District Court for the Northern District of California granted Apple’s motions for a preliminary injunction banning the sale of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 tablet and the Samsung Galaxy Nexus smartphone. This week, Judge Koh denied Samsung’s motions to stay the Galaxy Tab injunction and the Galaxy Nexus injunction. The Galaxy Nexus ban went into effect after Apple posted a $95.6 million bond, which it did on Tuesday after Judge Koh denied Samsung’s motion to stay the injunction. After that, Google pulled the Galaxy Nexus from its Google Play Store, and promised that sales would resume next week after the release of Android Jelly Bean, which would address the unified search patent that was the basis for the injunction. I hope that there is still some form of unified search included in the software update, and the more I have thought about it this week, the more I don’t think it is appropriate for Apple to have a patent on all methods of unified search (for more on the legitimacy and necessity of software patents, see the quotes from Judge Posner, below).

On friday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which is especially attuned to handling patent cases, denied Samsung’s motion for an immediate stay of the Galaxy Tab injunction but granted Samsung’s motion for an immediate stay of the Galaxy Nexus injunction. The appellate court directed Apple to respond to both motions to stay by July 12. An important distinction to note is that an immediate stay and a stay are really different forms of relief here, and the grant or denial of a motion for an immediate stay only impacts the time period before the motion for a stay is decided, which will be sometime after Apple responds. So, after Apple responds, the court will grant or deny a stay of the Galaxy Tab injunction and grant or deny a stay of the Galaxy Nexus injunction. But again, according to Google, it sounds like there will be a software update that will allow the Galaxy Nexus to be sold even if the injunction is reinstated. Either way, I would think Samsung – and probably Google – will continue to fight to invalidate the “Siri patent” relating to unified search, as that is really core to Google’s business.

And speaking of the Siri patent, a Chinese company is now claiming it invented and patented that technology and is suing Apple in China.

Judge Posner speaks out about software patents:
Judge Richard Posner of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals is a highly-respect jurist, especially in the intellectual property arena. He stopped the Apple v. Motorola patent infringement action, which – no surprise – involved Apple claiming that Motorola used technology patented by Apple in Motorola’s smartphones, from going to trial last month. In his opinion dated June 22, he wrote that Apple’s asserted patent of technology that allows for smoother playback of streaming video “is not a claim to a monopoly of streaming video!” This past week, in the wake of the Apple v. Samsung injunctions, he spoke out against software patents and questioned whether they should even exist. His reasons included that there is already incentive for technology companies to innovate because being the first to market new technology provides enough financial benefit without patent rights to that technology, innovations are cheaper in the technology world than in other areas, there are so many minor patents that go into one device, and because technology companies have so much money to bring infringement actions in an effort to get a competitive advantage, which is not the aim of patent law.

The reason for patent law is to promote invention and innovation by giving inventors the exclusive right to their inventions for a limited time period. In my opinion, these current patent battles hurt innovation because there are so many different technologies that go into a device that it seems almost impossible to make state-of-the-art devices without taking a risk of ending up having to fight a costly patent infringement lawsuit. Maybe companies like Apple, Google, and Samsung, have the funds to take such a risk and the reward for them makes the risk worthwhile, but some smaller companies may feel differently and not bring great technology to market.

Apple settles IPAD trademark dispute in China:
Check out my post from earlier this week for more on this.

The Nexus 7 continues to get good press:
The New York Times writes that the Nexus 7 could be a game-changer and give the iPad a run for its money.

iPad Mini and retooled “new iPad” on the way?
Maybe Apple really has some tricks up its sleeve, or maybe the Nexus 7′s imminent release and rumors of a Kindle Fire 2 have stirred the rumor pot, but this week brought more reports of a smaller “iPad Mini” and a retooled “new iPad” with a new display and thinner casing. According to the reports, both devices could release this year. I guess anything is possible, but I think Apple is pretty consistent with the devices it releases and when it releases them, so I would be surprised if either of these devices come out this year.

Two lighter stories:
Walmart is running a promotion for Energy Sheets, which is a Listerine Strips-like product with caffeine, where it will send Energy Sheets spokesman/rapper Pitbull to whatever US Walmart location gets the most new “likes” on Facebook. Two guys with either a good sense of humor, good taste in music, or both, started an #ExilePitbull campaign to send Pitbull to the most remote Walmart in the country – on Kodiak Island off Alaska. So far the Kodiak Walmart page has over 67,000 “likes,” more than 11 times the Kodiak Island population.

Def Leppard has been at an impasse with its record label over royalties for digital downloads, and as a result, much of Def Leppard’s catalog is not available for digital download in stores like iTunes and Amazon. In order to make their music available without caving in to their record label, Def Leppard has decided to re-record their songs. The band is not at all happy that they had to resort to this and called these new recordings “forgeries.” I listened to the new recording of “Pour Some Sugar On Me” and it sounds pretty good, but I agree with the band that it is so hard to re-create recordings from so long ago when the band members were younger and at different stages of their lives than they are now. In the end, though, it’ll get their songs in iTunes and hopefully bring in some revenue and also make it easier for younger music fans who only download music to get exposed to Def Leppard.

Technology Week in Review, 6/29/12: Apple wins two injunctions against Samsung, RIM delays BB 10, and Google announces Jelly Bean and Nexus 7 & Q

This past week was pretty full of technology news, and here’s a quick rundown of some interesting items…

Apple wins preliminary injunctions against Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1 and Galaxy Nexus
At the close of business on Tuesday, Judge Lucy Koh of The United States District Court for the Northern District of California granted a preliminary injunction banning sales of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. The injunction was based on Samsung’s alleged infringement of an Apple design patent related to the shape of the iPad – rectangular with rounded corners, curved bottom, and the edge of the display equidistant from the edge of the device on all sides – and the very similar design elements found in the Galaxy Tab 10.1. This injunction really deals with a device that is outdated and has been replaced by the Galaxy Tab 2 10.1

As I was typing this entry, news broke that the same judge in the same court granted Apple’s request for a preliminary injunction against the Samaung Galaxy Nexus. That hits close to home here at TMF HQ, considering I have and love the Galaxy Nexus. Of the four patents in question with regard to the Galaxy Nexus injuntion, Judge Koh only found that one of the alleged infringements – “a universal interface for the retrieval of information” (dubbed the “Siri patent”) – is capable of causing the irreparable harm necessary to warrant a preliminary injunction. The “Siri patent” as I understand it involves a user being able to perform a variety of tasks using one method of data input – Siri. Examples include searching the internet via the browser, locating a destination on a map, pulling up a contact’s phone number in the contacts directory, and adding a meeting to the calendar. This is done through Siri on iOS, but on my Galaxy Nexus has similar functionality using the Google search box with optional voice input found on each homescreen. I am not sure if the method of performing these tasks is the same from a coding perspective, but I can see how the Google search box qualifies as “a universal interface for the retrieval of information.”

This injunction will hurt Samsung more than the Galaxy Tab 10.1 injunction because the Galaxy Nexus is still a flagship device, even though the Galaxy S III will likely be the choice for customers going forward now. I would also think that some method of a unified search will be incorporated into devices in the future, so hopefully Samsung and Google can find another way of doing it that will not infringe, if the method used in the Galaxy Nexus does in fact infringe. And I say “if” because a preliminary injunction is not a final determination on the merits; obviously, though, a ban on a device in such a fast-moving industry is very damaging even if in the end it is lifted, which is why Apple has to post a bond of nearly $96 million for the injunction to go into effect.

Not to be left out, there also may be some patent issues with the upcoming Nexus 7 tablet too. From a consumer’s perspective, it is difficult to watch all these patent battles when I know that I am funding them, but I guess this is inevitable with such valuable patents in a fiercely competitive market.

Things keep going downhill for RIM
RIM, the maker of BlackBerry, announced that it was delaying the highly-anticipated BlackBerry 10 operating system from this fall to 2013. RIM also announced decreased revenue for the first quarter of 2012, but for a company whose time is running out as the competition keeps upping the ante, the delay of BlackBerry 10′s release seems much more troubling.

Google was busy
Google held its annual I/O Developer’s Conference this past week. Check out my post from Wednesday for more detail on some of the big news that came out at I/O 2012. At the event, Google unveiled Android Jelly Bean, which is aimed at having a smoother user experience and also incorporates improved voice recognition and a personal organizer of sorts dubbed Google Note, as well as the Nexus 7 tablet and the Nexus Q media streaming device. The Nexus 7 and Jelly Bean are receiving very good reviews, including by CNET, The Verge, BGR, and Engadget. However, CNET and The Verge gave the Nexus Q mediocre reviews based largely on the device being limited to displaying Google content and the high $299 price tag. Jelly Bean, Nexus 7, and Nexus Q will be available in mid-July, but the latter devices are available now for pre-order in the Google Play Store.

Google also announced a revamped Google+ app designed for tablets and the implementation of Google+ Events, which syncs with Google Calendar and also allows guests to automatically upload photos to the Event page and organizes uploaded photos in chronological order.

In light of the shift towards media consumption with the Nexus 7 and Nexus Q, Google also announced that it will begin offering magazines, television shows, and movie purchases in the Google Play Store.

A few more tidbits from Google this week include an updated Google Earth for Android app that includes 3D imagery for 14 cities, Google Chrome for Android leaving beta and becoming a stable release for devices running Ice Cream Sandwich, and Google Chrome coming to iOS and becoming the most popular free app in the App Store in one day, despite no promotion by Apple. Unfortunately, Apple only allows Safari to be the default browser, but Chrome still works great on my iPad. It’ll be interesting to see how Apple will handle some very popular competing apps in Chrome and Google Maps (after iOS 6 replaces Google Maps with Apple’s own mapping software). I think that if an iOS user prefers Chrome or Google Maps to Safari or Apple’s own Maps, then the user should be able to make those apps the defaults, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Apple restrict that capability.

Again, for more on these Google stories, check out my post from Wednesday.

Finally, Google co-founder Sergey Brin made an appearance and did a pretty cool demonstration of Google Project Glass using Google+ Hangouts:

I bought Apple TV

I’ve had my eye on Apple TV since seeing the album art screensaver years ago at a friend’s party. But as I often do, I got caught up in a waiting game and ended up getting nothing for all this time. First, I wanted to wait until Apple TV got 1080p support. But more importantly, I was – and still am – sort of torn between the Google/Android and Apple ecosystems, liking certain aspects of each and enjoying both on my Galaxy Nexus and iPad, respectively. And that’s the thing with the gadget market now – we’re not just buying a nice smartphone, tablet, streaming device, etc., we’re buying the ecosystem that comes with it. Google and Apple each make it really easy to sync music, movies, apps, photos, documents, and bookmarks across multiple devices on the same platform, but really difficult to do so when different platforms are involved. So it is really easiest to stay consistent with regard to platforms.

After liking my Galaxy Nexus and Google Play Music so much, I wanted to wait for the next batch of Google TV settop boxes to come out to at least see how they stack up to Apple TV. But due to the lack of real info on release date (probably this summer at the earliest) or price, and also due to having a February birthday and my father asking me several times what I wanted, I decided to cave in and buy Apple TV so I could enjoy it now rather than waiting indefinitely as is my M.O. And I am not surprised that I really like it.

Setup:
Setup for Apple TV (ATV) is really simple and easy and really only requires two connections – HDMI and power. Initially, I used wi-fi for the first few days but then decided to hardwire it to my router to be safe.

One oddity: I have ATV routed via HDMI through my home theater receiver, which then connects to a 768p plasma TV. So in the settings I changed the TV resolution from “auto” (which ATV set to 720p) to “1024×768 – 60 Hz” to match my TV resolution. The picture came through fine, but I lost audio. No big deal, but I found it odd that the display resolution can affect audio.


Remote:
The remote is functional and attractive (and tiny). It does what I need it to do, but if I didn’t have an iPad to use as a remote I would find it a pain to input text (like when searching YouTube) with just multi-directional and select buttons. The iPad remote works well.


User interface:
The user interface consist of tiled icons that provide access to different content. It is attractive and easy to use, but not customizable.


iTunes Store content:
The iTunes Store is broken down into different icons for movies, television, podcasts, trailers, etc. The layout within each is very attractive and intuitive. Based on my experience, previews and trailers are HD but in stereo only, while a movie I rented from iTunes was in HD and had 5.1 Dolby Digital audio. It looked and sounded great, and while Amazon on Demand on my Blu-ray player dropped down in quality at times based on connection, I never had that issue with ATV.

Also, the iTunes Store has a really great selection – probably the best on the market, and is very well-suited for a settop box.


Computer connectivity:
Another way to get content on ATV is to stream it from iTunes on a Mac or PC. This works seamlessly for audio and video, including 1080p video, based on my experience. There’s also a way to share photos through iTunes, and there is really nice slideshow functionality, although I wish ATV recognized folder heirarchy (as is it displays all photos from folders and subfolder in the same giant folder).

Album art screensaver:
One thing I was really interested in and had trouble setting up was getting the album art from my iTunes library to be used in the screensaver. Based on my research on the issue, many people think that Apple discontinued this feature. Whether it was once temporarily discontinued or not, I was able to find it with some effort. The default screen saver pattern is “random” and with that option set there is no album art option. But when I changed the pattern to “floating” I discovered that there was, in fact, an album art option and it let me select which iTunes library to pull from. And I was pleasantly surprised to find that the screen saver still ran even when the computer from which the album art was pulled was off, so I guess the unpublished 8 GB of flash memory is holding my album art.


Other content channels:
The YouTube channel works well. There’s also Vimeo and Flickr, neither of which I have used yet. I would love to get the NHL Network channel but it is pretty expensive (through no fault of Apple). The free NHL content – standings, schedules, and highlights, are still pretty cool though. I may give Netflix another shot after discontinuing it because I didn’t have time to watch enough movies to make it worthwhile.

[UPDATE: I decided to give Netflix a try and the interface looks really good, and the appearance and interface is consistent with the iTunes Store too, which is a nice touch. So far Netflix has been working well. The HD looks good, but not quite as good as Blu-ray, and I will wait till I watch more iTunes content and Netflix content before I compare their quality. There is a good amount of HD content. Some Netflix movies/shows have Dolby Digital audio, but that is really hit or miss, unfortunately.]


AirPlay:
Of all features of ATV, this is where it is most important to have an iOS device. AirPlay allows media to be streamed from an iOS device (or from iTunes) to ATV. It works really well and opens up the door to much more content on ATV, as I can now stream full TV shows, news reports, etc., from apps on my iPad. There is also AirPlay Mirroring, which allows the exact screen from the iOS device – even when there is no media being played on it – to be “mirrored” on ATV. I was disappointed in myself for not reading the footnote on Apple’s website that says that AirPlay Mirroring is only available on the iPad 2 or later and the iPhone 4S. But AirPlay still works on my original iPad, and that is good enough for me.

Negatives:
First and foremost, I wish that ATV could pull music from my iPod Classic via the dock connector. I understand that Apple is trying to push iCloud and iTunes Match, but it still sells iPod Classic and should make an effort to integrate it with other Apple products, like ATV.

I also wish that ATV had more sizable and accessible memory so that I could store some music on it rather than relying on having a computer with iTunes running or using the subscription-based iTunes Match. Again, I understand that Apple is pushing the cloud, and that the lack of memory allows for lower prices, but maybe 16GB of user-accessible storage wouldn’t hurt.

The lack of analog output is a negative too. I know that the digital audio carried by HDMI and optical is far superior to analog, but not everyone has a sound system that allows for digital audio input, and people should not have to rely on their HDTV to convert the audio from digital to analog. For me, my Pioneer receiver plays HDMI audio without a problem. But it has also “zone 2″ function that allows audio to be sent via analog cables to a second receiver in another section of my apartment, and it cannot convert digital audio to analog for zone 2. This issue probably affects a very small percentage of people, but it is still frustrating.

I’d like to see a built-in browser and some more apps that deliver free/ad-supported content. And the ability to re-arrange the content icons. Wishful thinking, I know.

Conclusion:
I really like ATV and it is definitely worth the relatively low $99 pricetag. Its user interface is really easy to use and ATV is great for watching YouTube, NetFlix, and renting movies and TV shows. But really, it is more fair to look at ATV as sort of a connector between Apple and TV rather than a standalone device, and ATV is exponentially more useful because I am already in the Apple ecosystem by using iTunes and iPad. This is certainly by design, and provides an incentive to stay in the Apple ecosystem.

I will keep my iTunes and Google Play Music libraries current and continue to use my iPad and Galaxy Nexus (which I would anyway) in order to get the best of both the Apple and Google ecosystems.