Chromecast sold me on Apple TV but it’s complicated

My big excitement in the last two weeks was our HD TV purchase which brought my hope for an Apple TV a little closer.

We are like those families who hung on to cabled VHS machines when everyone had moved on to DVD players. This is our first step into the modern TV era. Having bought a really nice (dumb) LG HD TV, I finally had a screen I could connect my first generation Chromecast to and see what it could really do.

I almost immediately fell in love with my Chromecast. It updated itself and I set the background to switch between photos sourced from some beautiful online collections and a couple of my Google Photos albums.

We primarily watch YouTube and Netflix with our Chromecast. They are just about the only apps we have that support Chromecast on our iOS devices. We have been Netflix fans for a while so that mostly works out just fine for us.

Yes, I prefer to pay for our entertainment

I am a bit proponent of paying for my TV series and movies so I buy just about all our movies and TV series from the iTunes store. Unfortunately the Israeli iTunes store doesn’t have as much of a movie collection as the US store and doesn’t have any TV series. This means I’m not using the Israeli iTunes store which is problematic in itself.

I am also an Apple Music fan and have been a subscriber since the service launched.

Given how invested we are in Apple-supplied content, I have my eyes on an Apple TV for our home so I can access all our content in much the same way I do with our Chromecast. I can use my laptop to access our movies and TV series but my Chromecast has spoiled me with the ability to easily watch stuff on our TV without needing to plug my laptop in and mess with displays and stuff.

Compared to the Chromecast, the Apple TV is expensive and part of my justification to my wife for buying one is that we could also use it as a gaming console and save us the cost of an X-Box or Sony Playstation (my son wants an X-Box because he can play Minecraft – I told him Minecraft is coming to the Apple TV too). She may be convinced (decision pending).

Joseph Rosensteel published an article titled “Apple’s October TV Surprise” (I linked to it from Matt Mullenweg’s post titled “Apple TV’s Struggles“) which raises more than a few questions about whether the Apple TV is worth buying. It has certainly given me reason to thinking a little more about my planned purchase.

There is no way to justify spending $150 to enter Apple’s TV ecosystem in the fall of 2016 on hardware alone. When Google is making a streaming UHD HDR player that costs LESS than a replacement Siri Remote, there is a problem with the hardware Apple is selling.

But I don’t have many paid content options

I would be pretty comfortable switching our movies and TV series across to the Google Play Store and just using the Chromecast as our primary media streaming device. Unfortunately, movies and TV series are simply not available from the Google Play Store here in Israel. Even the iTunes store offers some movies and music here!

These are the countries in which you can buy movies from the Google Play Store. Movies are available in Ivory Coast, Mali and Tajikistan but not Israel?

Albania, Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Aruba, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Belize, Benin, Bolivia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Botswana, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Canada, Cape Verde, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Estonia, Finland, Fiji, France, Gabon, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Ivory Coast, Jamaica, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Malaysia, Mali, Malta, Mauritius, Mexico, Moldova, Namibia, Netherlands, Nepal, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Niger, Norway, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Rwanda, Russia, Senegal, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Thailand, Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Zambia, Zimbabwe

TV shows
Australia, Austria, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States

Another effect of limiting (or opening up) the availability of this sort of content is that it influences which device ecosystem you buy into and stick with. I’ve considered switching to Android on and off but remain with my iOS devices because I rely on certain iOS apps fairly heavily. I also have all of my music and, of course, my movies and TV series in Appleland too.

That largely locks me into the macOS/iOS ecosystem. Buying an Apple TV would only entrench me further in the ecosystem. Given that this is the best source of much of my entertainment and my apps, it is practically inevitable.

The absurd content availability model

This fragmented content availability confounds me. It is the 21st century. Israel has pretty good, cheap broadband and a population that is really tech savvy. Why can we not pay our hard earned Shekels for the content we want?

That is a rhetorical question. The answer is likely that the studios and publishers have deals with local distributors and those deals block availability of the content here.

What happens is that almost everyone I know simply torrents the stuff they want to watch. Our friends look at me like I am crazy when I tell them I prefer to buy our movies and TV series. They explain to me (slowly and loudly) that all I need is Kodi or some streamer and it’s all free!

Israel also has what seems to be a substantial Android user-base so extending Google’s content offerings to Israel would seem to make a lot of sense. Unfortunately the people who could change the current situation don’t seem to agree.

Opening the Google Play Store to more countries opens the door for more people also makes switching to the Google ecosystem feasible. Surely that is desirable to Google too?

So that leaves me with my current plan to invest in an Apple TV at some point in the near future. Hopefully it will be worth the cost but given where we have most of our content, it remains a compelling option. Still, it’s complicated and it needn’t be.

Featured image credit: Stocksnap

What is Twitter good for?

My post about my little family project attracted some attention after Ory Okolloh Mwangi retweeted it and it got me thinking about what Twitter is good for as a promotional and distribution tool. I wrote about Twitter engagement in May 2015 after reading Anil Dash’s post titled “Nobody Famous” and although I have a much smaller Twitter following, I had noticed similar trends.

Twitter engagement – much ado about nothing much

The tweet attracted a fair amount of attention for my tweets (my “routine” tweets attract about 10% to 25% of these impressions) and yet the actual click-through rate was about 1.2% with a total “engagement rate” of 3.5%. Remember that the “engagement rate” includes –

  • Media engagements;
  • Link clicks;
  • Detail expands;
  • Profile clicks;
  • Retweets; and
  • Likes.

Of those, the link clicks and retweets probably offer the most direct value (a single retweet was why the tweet attracted so much attention in the first place). The other forms of engagement are focused on the tweet itself and attached media, not the blog post I shared.

Some stats to illustrate a point.
Some stats to illustrate a point.

So what is Twitter good for given the relatively low, meaningful engagement? By “meaningful engagement” I mean engagement that leads people to the blog post I shared. That, after all, is how I have chosen to share my content – on my blog. The answer is probably “not much” if Twitter’s value is the extent to which it sends traffic to what you tweet about as opposed to focusing attention on itself.

The rumour that Twitter is going to expand tweets to 10,000 characters and discard its vaunted 140 character limit casts a different light on the relatively low, meaningful engagement rates you see on Twitter. What it means is that the impressions a tweet receives and the tweet-related engagement rates will become far more significant than the forms of engagement the lead users outside the Twitter ecosystem. It sounds obvious when you think about it but the implications are pretty profound. As Mathew Ingram pointed out in his article on Fortune titled “Here’s Why Twitter Wants to Expand to 10,000 Characters” –

If and when Twitter does roll out its 10,000-character feature, in other words, expect that to be quickly followed by a pitch to publishers like the Post and others to host their content entirely on Twitter, in return for a share of the advertising revenue and a commitment to help those articles go “viral.” Another step in the death of the link.

10,000 characters is quite a lot. It is enough space to write a short story and if Twitter provides sufficient text formatting options for publishers, Twitter could well become another walled garden fuelled by the amount of impressions its various promotional and distribution options can offer. It will become another closed ecosystem to tempt publishers increasingly threatened by the growing ad blocker phenomenon and a shift of content to Facebook and even Medium. I agree with Ingram that this sort of move really erodes the link, the basic currency of the open Web.

Hey IOL, it’s ok to link to Gareth Cliff’s blog post

What’s going to happen, then, is that the content landscape will be divided between the gleaming, closed cities of Facebook, Twitter, Medium and others and the vast wilderness populated by blogs, independent publishers and others who either go it alone or form alliances to survive. For those whose content lives in the new gleaming cities, life may seem pretty good but there will always be the lingering fear that comes with knowing that they’re just tenants and their new patrons make all the rules.

Speaking of the wilderness, I have noticed what seems to be a resurgence of interest in blogging and running independent platforms. I’m not sure if this is just confirmation bias but it almost feels as if the blogosphere is making a comeback. I really hope it is because this the blogosphere is going to be the only environment where engagement translates into actual views of your content, not just some distributed flyer advertising your content. It could also become the only environment where you will have an opportunity to see all the content you want to see, how you want to see it (remember RSS?) and not the content someone else’s algorithm thinks you should see.

So, if I am right about all of this, what is Twitter good for? For that matter, what are Facebook, Medium, Snapchat and other social services good for? They have to attract publishers or they’ll have nothing to offer users but their primary focus isn’t publishers, it’s whatever it takes to keep users coming back and that will be at the expense of publishers who want pretty much the same thing, although ideally using good quality content. This doesn’t mean that publishers and social networks are aligned, at least not in the medium to long term. At some point their interests will clash and those walled gardens will start to feel like prisons.

Image source: Pexels, released under a CC0 Dedication

A letter to a young child from his dying mother

“From 1994” Short Film from Casey Warren | MINDCASTLE on Vimeo.

This is a powerful and emotional video and it touches on something I’ve thought about a couple times. We don’t know how much longer we have in this life. If our time came to an end today, what would we want to leave behind for our kids? Would we leave a letter for them sharing our thoughts, feelings and wisdom? I thought about recording short videos for our kids about the things I think about and the lessons I’ve learned and want to share with them.

I also realised that my blog, my updates and my photos are also my legacy to our kids. Through all this stuff I share online (publicly and not so publicly), they gain more insights into who I am which could help them understand decisions I have made. I think about what I have from my father and one of his possessions which help me understand him better is a journal he kept for a while before he passed away.

I wonder if our kids will look at all the stuff I have captured from our lives and see it as a valuable record of our lives? I hope they will see some benefit in it even if a lot of what I publish is either pretty limited to specific contexts and passing events or just waffle.

Mostly I just don’t particularly want to leave this life for many more decades to come. I’d much rather our kids get to know me better in person.

Techno frazzled

 

I’m hypothetically on leave at the moment (back at work on the 6th) and my plan was to pull my mind back from the ledge it has lived on for the past year or so and back to rolling green fields caressed by cool breezes and the sounds of my children’s laughter. As usual, it takes a little longer than I expect for my mind to calm enough to meet a semblance of my idea of being on holiday but I have high hopes for the few days remaining.

Anyway, one of the things I have noticed as I strive to spend more human time with our kids and my wife is how easily I am caught up by an array of digital inputs and streams on my iPad and iPhone. I disabled email notifications (sort of) so that isn’t bombarding me but what I realised today is that I am still frazzled because I am constantly flipping between my feeds, an ebook or two, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Path (a bit), Flipboard versions of most of the previous items and the desire to write more for this blog. That is before I get to the bit where I spend more than a few minutes focused on our kids and whatever they want to tell me or do with me.

I’ve accepted a totally fragmented and, quite possibly, upside down array of services, inputs and outputs because I have been so hectic, sorting out that mess hasn’t really been a big priority. Lately I’ve been thinking more and more about this blog and its value to me as a core expression platform which I control (well, more than most of the others I use) and which can function as a fairly decent reference point of who I am and what I think about, generally speaking. Unfortunately WordPress isn’t as good as Tumblr or Google+ when it comes to sharing mixed-content items so I have been thinking about using those services more and for the sorts of things I’d rather publish here and a number of variations.

I found myself in a ridiculous position of reading a post on Flipboard I wanted to share and spending about 5 minutes sharing to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+ (or, as an alternative, to Tumblr instead of Twitter and Facebook because Tumblr then shares with Twitter and Facebook) even though I’d much rather share directly to my WordPress blog and keep it all on one site. Reading articles and sharing them has become an utter pain in the butt. It is just too much effort, depending on where I read the article. Sharing items I pick up on in Reeder is quite a bit easier because of Buffer integration but I still have this complexity beneath it all and two aspects of the insanity have been particularly vexing: what do I do with this blog to make it a more meaningful part of my digital life and identity and do I continue attempting to use Tumblr and Google+, alongside other profiles for the quick shares? Surely this is far too convoluted?

Realising my self-induced techno frazzled state was keeping me from both a relaxing week and a half off and being more productive; I decided to find ways to simplify my process. I really like my blog and using it as a central hub. I’ve been reading a number of posts about blogging and Om Malik’s post stands out for me as a nice explanation of what I’d like to do with this blog:

And while I embrace every new social platform with gusto, I find it frustrating that my point of view is spliced across various networks. I think the blog is the one that ties it all together — a central location where you fit together all the Lego pieces. In many ways it is no different than what blogs used to be in the beginning. Instead of them being a starting point of the journey, they are now the final stop, a digital home in our social media meanderings. Marc Canter,came up with a concept called “digital life aggregators.” And he was right — blogs are just that, digital life aggregators.

It occurred to me that I probably have a pretty backwards workflow and could also ditch a couple channels I have been forcing into my others. One that came to mind is Tumblr which I have always liked but couldn’t really find a comfortable space for as a way to share stuff as a sort of secondary blog. I tried using it as a standalone blog; importing it into my main blog and, lately, adding a widget from my Tumblr feed to my blog to bolt it on, so to speak.

When I started thinking about simplifying it all, the solution to my Tumblr challenge was pretty simple, in retrospect: stop using Tumblr to share miscellaneous stuff that is pretty lightweight but not substantive enough to bother with a relatively manual process of posting it to this blog. Instead (and it’s almost embarrassing it has taken me so long to have this epiphany) I’ll just use Twitter for that stuff. So between my blog and Twitter, I have my content creation covered. Tumblr then falls into line with Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and Twitter (wearing the other hat) as ways to share my posts and other stuff with people who may be interested and who are firmly entrenched into these services.

One thing that seems to have emerged from the social Web is how the engagement part of the interaction has been separated from, and only remains loosely associated with, the source posts on my blog. It’s a bit like using separate speakers connected through a receiver for your home entertainment system instead of the speakers built into your TV. The engagement end of that barrel is still a series of pipes but it starts to simplify what I share on this blog and which is lighter weight stuff which I’ll share through Twitter either on its own or with other, appropriate services.

One of the thoughts I had about dropping Tumblr for Twitter (well, the thought after how I have finally caught up with how most people must be using Twitter) is how its updates and changes have changed its look and functionality to do a lot of what Tumblr does (specifically with inline media). It makes more sense to me, at any rate.

I still feel like there is a lot more room to simplify everything. I could cut back on many of the services I use but I keep thinking that would be pretty short-sighted. So, here I am, thinking out loud about how my inability to cut through my techno frazzle has frustrated my strong desire to spend far more time doing more quality human stuff with my family.

Feedly, Google Currents and how we read

Google launched Google Currents and released Android and iOS apps. I installed the app and it is a beautiful app but I couldn’t help but notice its similarities to an app that has been around for a while: Feedly. Take a look at these two videos which demonstrate both services’/apps’ functionality:

and

Feedly is more explicitly a service which uses Google Reader as its content source. Its similarities to other feed readers pretty much stops there. Feedly doesn’t use the classic “subscription” and “feed” terminology. It talks about “following” content sources and gives you the ability to share widely using services like Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and save content to Instapaper, Evernote and other services.

I tend to use Reeder for my feeds (I still refer to them as feeds, I am that retro) but Feedly is my next best choice. Currents is a beautiful looking app (to my layperson’s eyes) and worth exploring. It emphasizes Google+ sharing but you can also share or save to other services like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instapaper and Pinboard. I’ve seen a couple tweets about Currents being a Flipboard challenger but I think a better comparison is with Feedly. Flipboard is more of a discovery service where you read whatever other people have chosen to share. With Currents and Feedly, you choose your sources. You just don’t get into RSS-land, at least not explicitly.

What I find interesting is that services/apps like Currents and Feedly show that we still want to read our “feeds” but we just don’t want to deal with the geekier feed-related terminology or formats. We prefer a nicely designed interface to the classic Google Reader interface but we want our sources and our content just the same. Thank goodness. For a while there, I thought Twitter really would become the only way we read content.

What blogging means to me

Blogging

I blog to make the world a better place, most of the time. I am pretty idealistic and, some might say, a bit naive and I am ok with that. My hero is Superman and I believe in the ideals he represents (I even have a Superman t-shirt for every day of the week). I remember when I applied for entrance into Wits’ LLB program I said something about the legal system being a tool to improve society and wanting to be part of that process. The point is I have this notion that I can do my small bit to make this world a little better and the public tools I use are my blogs and my podcasts.

Blogs used to be almost exclusively online diaries and were still described as online diaries in the South African press until some time in 2006 when the media embraced the idea that blogs could be more than a diary. To me, blogs are the children of the principles of The Cluetrain Manifesto. They facilitate the expression of an authentic voice that the authors of Cluetrain spoke about, as well as the direct feedback from readers of the blog.

Blogs make it really easy for anyone to publish their thoughts on the Web and to have those thoughts received and transmitted to a potential audience of millions, perhaps even billions. It is probably pretty rare that billions, or even millions, of people will actually read a blog post but that is ok too. If a thousand people read something I write and some of those people do something meaningful then I have done what I set out to do. Sometimes just talking about an issue is important. The main thing for me is to make a difference of some kind, however small. Sometimes I slip up and I write in a destructive way but I’d like to think those times are few and far between.

Bloggers have received some pretty negative publicity in the last few months in response to the way certain hot topics have been dealt with by local bloggers. Responses have varied from rational analyses of the issues to wild and outrageous personal attacks on the personalities involved and more. This hasn’t helped the nascent blogosphere’s credibility with mainstream media as the gateway to the general public. Ideally I would like to see blogs embraced as legitimate sources of commentary, entertainment, news and information about what is going on in our world.

Through blogs we can publish information far quicker than the press and to a potentially broader audience because we are not constrained by geography and production schedules. A blog post can be on the Web in a matter of minutes and there could be feedback within minutes after that. I have published posts in the past, stepped away from my laptop for half an hour and have returned to find a dozen comments already and I don’t have tremendously popular blogs.

Good feedback for me on my most popular blog, Wired Gecko, is half a dozen posts (Update (2016-03-30): Wired Gecko was rolled into this blog a few years ago). A dozen posts is great and more is a runaway success for me. Regardless of the small number of readers who frequent my blogs, I see those people as my partners in helping to make the world that little bit better because the people who frequent my blogs tend to share some of my ideas and passion.

The ability to share my thoughts and passion with the people in the cloud and to do that authentically are two powerful advantages of blogging and two of the big reasons why I blog in the first place. I am becoming less and less dependent on the quantity of readers of my blogs and more focussed on the quality of those readers and to attract those readers I aim to write better quality posts rather than posts aboout topics I know will attract a bigger audience and yet fail to contribute to my overall goal of making a real difference. That being said, I still post about the popular, pointless stuff from time to time so my blogs are by no means paragons of social awareness blogging.

Members of the press have commented on the fact that they are paid to write good quality content for their papers and bloggers are not paid. Furthermore, you pretty much get what you pay for and since bloggers are generally not paid, the implication is that the posts those bloggers publish are poorly written and of little value. I have to wonder whether not being paid for my blogging means that I am free to publish posts that are aligned with what I believe and not with what sells better. How can you expect to publish something truly meaningful when your primary motivation is to publish something that will make more money? Sometimes the important issues are not the popular ones and yet they still need to be talked about.

Joi Ito published a post a couple weeks ago titled “Mindful Writing” where he took a look at the Buddhist principle of Right Speech and applied it to his blog posts and in a way it was both ironic and a synchronicity that I first saw his post on a day when the blogosphere was going ballistic about the latest attack on it. He quoted a passage from a book titled “The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching” by Thich Nhat Hanh on the topic of Right Speech which I’ll quote a little from:

“I am determined to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope. I will not spread news that I do not know to be certain and will not criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break.”

This quote expresses ideals I aspire to. They are worthy ideals for bloggers to aspire to. There has been so much talk about codes of conduct for bloggers and the fatal flaw with all these codes is that they are external and intended to be imposed on the bloggers in some way. The only code that will have any real effect is the code we internalise, believe in and express through our actions. Perhaps when enough bloggers practice some variation of Right Speech and Right Action our blogs will have greater credibility in the eyes of our intended audience.

Blogs are vanilla these days. They can be used as personal diaries and corporate communication tools. They are really just web publishing platforms and are defined by what they are used for. They are used maliciously and they are used to promote positive ideals. I blog to make the world a better place and sometimes I have a very small impact on an issue I am passionate about and that makes all the time I spend on my blogs worthwhile.

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