Thursday, December 10, 2009

TiVo vs. AppleTV for Video on Demand

I’ve had a a TiVo Series 2 for years. Its user experience for selecting, recording and watching TV shows left everything else in the dust. So when TiVo teamed up with Amazon a year or two ago to offer video-on-demand movies and TV shows via TiVo, I had high hopes.

These were quickly dashed. The Amazon VoD UI embedded in TiVo is unresponsive, clumsy, cumbersome and unpleasant—everything the TiVo UI itself is not. When one chooses “Video on Demand” from the TiVo menu, one arrives at a menu screen featuring something like 8 different VoD vendors whose delivery medium is TiVo. Never mind the fact that as a movie watcher, I could give a flying fork whether “Jaman Movies and Shorts” or “Disney Video” or “Blockbuster” or “Amazon Video on Demand” supplies the title I want to watch; as a customer, I’m focused on content, not content vendors.

Yet amazingly, not only is the TiVo UI organized by something as meaningless as vendor, but each of the vendor submenus takes you to a different, yet uniformly awful, user interface. Here are some misfeatures common to all of them:

  • Each button press on the TiVo remote has a UI response time between 700 and 1500ms. Yes, that’s right, it can takemore than a second to get any visual or auditory feedback that your button-press actually did anything. This is far above the established thresholds for perceptual causality (~100ms). In contrast, when using the “native” TiVo UI, it feels snappy and responsive.

  • Each VoD source has a different menu-driven UI for search, “top titles”, browse by genre, etc. The user has a simple goal: “I want to find (or browse) movies.” Yet each submenu has a different structure, for no defensible reason. As a user, what do I care which of the vendors is providing the content?

  • The GUI is not only entirely textual, it is designed in such a way that less than 50% of the already-scarce screen real estate is actually devoted to browsing. The rest is devoted to TiVo templated elements and blather from the VoD vendor about how thrilled I should be that I had the wisdom to select them.

The UI is, in short, astonishingly bad.  It is all the more frustrating because this truly awful UI, which makes me want to hurl the remote at the screen, emanates from the same device that gave us the effortlessly superior TiVo UI.

What happened?

Bottom line: when it comes to video on demand, TiVo has provided an unresponsive, inconsistent, confusing and non-thought-out GUI in which various competing vendors of VoD media fight for your eyeballs with unattractive, unintuitive, arbitrarily-different GUIs that violate every basic GUI tenet, including those to which the original TiVo GUI hews so faithfully and well.  In contrast, AppleTV, for all its bashing, has a nicely-thought-out, consistent, aesthetically appealing GUI that does the one thing you want to do: find the damn movie easily, and start watching it as soon as possible. The search interface is fast and responsive; the user experience is,well, Apple; and you can usually start watching movies within 1-2 minutes of clicking “Buy”. (The last time I used Amazon VoD on TiVo to watch a 30-minute TV sitcom episode, I had to wait 20 minutes before I could start watching, even though my TiVo enjoys access to exactly the same broadband network as my AppleTV. How is 20 minutes “video on demand”? I could have made a trip to the local video store and been back in less time than that.)

Shame on you, TiVo.  DVR hardware is commodity; what had set you apart was your UI. As you continue to add vendors to your hideous VoD user experience, you will start running out of feet in which to shoot yourselves.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

I’d like to disabuse early-career grad students of certainmisconceptions…

  1. You are rarely the best judge of the most important material or best presentation strategy for your talk. Corollary: Give one or more practice talks.

  2. Writing is much harder than you think. Corollary 1: You are not that great a writer. Corollary 2: If you don’t have a solid draft 1-2 weeks before the conference deadline, you’re starting with 2 strikes.

  3. 80% or more of submitted papers are rejected. Corollary: You need feedback from colleagues and outsiders to improve your paper. A poor way to get feedback is to submit the paper, wait 6 months, and get a rejection with cryptic reviews. A better way is left as an exercise to the reader. (Thanks to Mike Franklin for this particular way of looking at the “get feedback” issue.)

  4. When you write up your work, remember that nobody cares what you did but only why it advances the state of the art. Edit accordingly. Corollary: edit an outline and paragraph map before you start writing. It’s much easier to rearrange/eliminate at this level than at the prose level.

  5. The reviewer has 20 other papers waiting to be reviewed and is looking for a reason to set yours aside and move on. Corollary: your job is to ensure no such opening is provided—whether by unsupported statements, poor writing, rambling style, etc.

  6. Your goal is not that your work gets the approval of your advisor, but the approval of the research community, as represented by the (usually anonymous) reviewers who will be evaluating your paper. Your advisor can bring her/his experience to bear and give you advice (hence “advisor”) on how to maximize the likelihood of this, but don’t mislead yourself into thinking that your goal should be to please your advisor.  If the community is pleased with your work, chances are excellent your advisor will be too.  Corollary: Get lots of feedback on a paper from people other than your advisor—i.e., people representative of the reviewers who’ll evaluate it—before submitting it.
  7. Every written statement in a research paper is either a statement supported by your results, a statement supported by your or others’ prior work, or an opinion. If it’s not obviously one of the first two, reviewers will assume it’s the third. Corollary: if it’s an opinion, you’d better either back it up or explicitly present it as such. If it’s not an opinion, make clear why not.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

My new Kindle DX: the good, the bad, the executive summary

I’ve been the satisfied owner of a Kindle 1 for several months.  Today I got my Kindle DX, which I pre-ordered the day it was announced.  Here’s my first impression–but the executive summary is, I’m keeping it!

The good (in order of coolest to just nifty):

  • PDF files look really, really good.  I’ve tried viewing technical papers (PDF generated from LaTeX or Word), PDF e-books purchased online, music printed from Finale, and sheet music and books scanned  to PDF bitmaps.  They rendered quickly and look awesome.  This alone justifies the purchase for me.  Indeed, with sheet music, there’s now the possibility of downloading MP3 files of, say, Dvorak’s New World Symphony and following along in the score as I listen…sweeet.

  • The auto-rotate to landscape mode is nice, though for PDF files it doesn’t seem to always get the page breaks right if you rotate the file out of its “natural” orientation.

  • The responsiveness and screen refresh feels somewhat faster than the K1, but not stunningly so, and I didn’t really have complaints about the K1 anyway.

  • The industrial design is considerably spiffier. If not for the Amazon logo, you might mistake it for an Apple product. That’s not a knock, it’s a compliment. Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.

The bad (in order of most annoying to least annoying):

  • No touch screen. Not surprising but it would have been REALLY cool. I almost purchased an iRex iLiad Book Editioninstead for this feature.

  • Can’t annotate PDF files (as far as I can tell) by attaching notes/highlights to them the way you can with ebooks.

  • The UI still doesn’t let you organize your documents and books into folders. Since I plan to use the PDF feature to read technical papers, I’ll be at 100 documents within a week. It’s going to get unmanageable fast.

  • The charger/USB port is micro-USB (not to be confused with mini-USB). Not only can’t I use my K1 charger, I can’t even use my existing USB cables.  (It comes with a combination USB/charger cable, but it’s just one more adapter to carry.)

  • The UI for selecting “links” in an ebook is, in my opinion, worse.  The K1 had a separate scroll wheel with a little metallic-looking “slug” you used to select links.  The DX (and I assume the Kindle 2) try to repaint an on-screen pointing-hand cursor (browser-like), but the screen’s refresh isn’t quite fast enough to keep up, so there’s a lot of ghosting and mispositioning.

  • The power switch is a slider, so you have to hold it for 4 seconds to turn the device off.  The K1 had a mechanical 2-position switch that I thought was easier to operate. Similarly, turning wireless on and off now requires a menu selection; on the K1 it had its own switch.

  • Unlike the K1, it doesn’t come with a protective case of any kind. I know this is to stimulate an aftermarket, but still.

The executive summary:

  • I’m really glad I got this. The PDF reader alone is the killer feature. (WIthout it, I wouldn’t have cared about having a larger screen.) I’ll save hundreds of pages of printing a year just by reading technical papers on here.  Magazines like CACM and IEEE Computer are now PDF format, so I’ll be able to stop receiving paper copies of those too.

  • This doesn’t replace my K1. The DX is clearly a two-handed device, like one of those leather portfolios that suits use to carry around professional documents. I’ll use it to read technical papers and other things where the large screen is mandatory. For everything else—including documents reformatted into a markup language from, say, HTML or Word or even latex2html—I like my K1: it’s small, I can use it one-handed (e.g. when standing on the train), it feels like a more appropriate form factor for reading in bed, etc.

  • This is a killer device for textbooks, as I had suspected.

Friday, June 12, 2009

TiVo’s “video on demand” UI was designed by vandals in the 80’s

We have a 2nd-gen TiVo DVR as well as an AppleTV.

TiVo is widely and deservedly praised for its outstanding user experience. But in the video-on-demand department, it’s so pathetically inferior to AppleTV that it doesn’t appear to have been designed in the same decade. The great guys and gals who designed the original TiVO UI must have left the back door open when it comes to the VoD UI.

If I select the TiVo “video on demand” menu option from the top-level menu, I get six submenus: Amazon Video on Demand, Walt Disney Studios, Jaman Movies and Shorts, Browse Free Videos, Music Videos from Music Choice, and Home Movies By One True Media. As a user, what the hell do I choose? Why should the distributor of a piece of video be a first-order user experience choice? Wouldn’t most users be more likely to know, say, the name of the movie or its actors rather than the name of the middleman distributor that happens to control the distribution rights for that piece of video via TiVo?

Among those six choices, the submenus are all different. If I choose Amazon Video on Demand, I get choices like Top Rentals, Top Categories & Special Deals, Browse Entire Catalog, Search, and FAQ. The Walt Disney Studios menu item reveals Most Popular, New Arrivals, Browse, and About CinemaNow (whatever that is; the term doesn’t appear elsewhere in the UE). Even in menu items where Search is allowed, it appears at a different spot in every menu. None of the menus or submenus have anything other than a text-only, one-screen-at-a-time interface. It’s like using Gopher before we had the World Wide Web.

Finally, to add insult to injury, the couple of times I’ve actually purchased TV episodes from Amazon Video on Demand, I have to wait an amount of time that is a large fraction of the total playing time before I can start watching. To watch a 30-minute TV sitcom episode, I had to wait over 20 minutes before I could hit Play. Look, I understand about buffering, but AppleTV gets this right–why can’t TiVo?

How does this compare to AppleTV’s user experience? The top level choices there are “Movies” and “TV Shows”. Each choice gets me to an attractively-arranged screen of box-cover graphics with titles (vs. TiVo’s 1980’s text-only interface), or I can search either movies or TV shows. The user experience is identical for both movies and TV shows. If I happen to have rented or purchased movies or TV shows in my iTunes library, I see those as well. I can watch the trailer of any movie instantly and for free. If I choose to purchase or rent a movie or TV show, I can typically start watching within 1 to 3 minutes, in HD and digital surround if available for that movie. Amazon VoD is 1- or 2-channel sound and standard-def NTSC video.

Yes, AppleTV has a far smaller selection of content than Amazon, and the price per rental item is a bit higher. But using AppleTV is a joy, whereas using the TiVo/Amazon UE feels like I’ve been transported back to Gopher in the late 1980’s. Shame on TiVo for allowing this dreck to invade an otherwise excellently designed product. It’s frustrating that TiVo, a device that otherwise has an excellent UE and is by its nature an Internet appliance, falls so embarrassingly flat when it comes to a UE for video-on-demand that isn’t even usable, let alone compelling. Get a clue, guys–the iPod has 85%+ market share for a reason.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Gov. Schwarzenegger calls for open-source digital textbooks in CA; I hope he means e-books

In the midst of a severe budget crisis in California, Governor Schwarzenegger has called for the use of open-source digital textbooks for California schools.

I think this is a great idea and another innovation where California should lead the way, in addition to being a cost saving measure (and potentially an ecologically friendly one). But I was confused when NPR interviewed Sheila Jordan, Alameda County Superintendent of Education, on this topic. Superintendent Jordan spent much of the interview expressing concern about how a lot of students don’t have reliable access to computers and the Internet, and how teachers certainly don’t have the resources to print copies of textbooks in class for such students.

Now, I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Jordan’s concerns, but when I think of “digital textbooks” I don’t think of people reading off a Web browser at home, or taking home pieces of paper printed off a Web browser at school. I think of downloading content onto an ebook reader—no paper waste, easier to read than a screen, can take it with you, etc. Granted, most students don’t have those either, but they are less expensive than computers (especially if purchased in bulk or otherwise subsidized, e.g. by textbook publishers), don’t require Internet connectivity (the Kindle relies on the 3G data network for downloads, or files can be sideloaded via USB), and are ecologically friendly.

I know that current ebook readers are targeted at people buying books online, but I’ve downloaded plenty of public domain content onto my Kindle–academic papers, public domain and no-license-feebooks from various sources (textbooks and otherwise), and more. Devices like the large-screen Kindle DX and the iRex iLiad Book Edition are no-brainers for textbooks, at least where black & white is sufficient, and Amazon’s even announced pilot programs where they are seeding colleges with Kindle DX’s.

So one of us—either myself or Supt. Jordan—may have misunderstood what the Gov meant by “digital textbooks”. I hope my interpretation of his words is correct.

More worrisome is the politics of state-level textbook review in California and the sham process that seems to make the review system fundamentally broken (well, at least we don’t have stickers warning students about evolution on biology books!). This may be why the Gov proposed e-textbooks for math and science first, which are least susceptible to these issues, though I agree with Supt. Jordan that because of the way those books are used (students flip pages back and forth as they study) they might not be the best candidates for early adoption. At any rate, one may hope that the profileration of open source textbooks may change the dynamics of the state textbook review situation—authors of open-source aren’t producing them for profit and so are less likely to feel constrained by such guidelines, and the quality of the free books may be just too good to pass up.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Can retrocomputing bring computer-aided learning to the other 90%?

Not sure which of my colleagues (maybe Matt?) pointed me at this, or maybe I read it in one of the various pheeds, but the guys at PlayPower have observed that a self-contained Nintendo NES knockoff, packaged in a cheap keyboard and including NES-like game controllers, is sold in India, China and other countries as the “TV Computer” for around US $10! In fact since the NES patents expired a few years ago, these are now 100% legal, and many different manufacturers offer them. PlayPower’s goal is to find a way to use these to bootstrap computer-aided education (basic computer literacy, learning games like the old Oregon Trail, etc.) in developing countries. Like the Atari 2600, there is a vibrant retrocomputing developer community around the NES.

PlayPower’s booth at Maker Faire had a couple of these devices on display. The NES, also called the Famicom in Asia, was a 6502-based cartridge game system whose technology was only half a generation or so ahead of the Atari 2600. The device plugs into a TV (they have both composite video out and RF out, and soldering an undocumented pad on the board switches between NTSC and PAL) and come with a starter cartridge that has various game titles on it, and even seems to have programs that “simulate” word processing and Web browsing (kind of like “my first cell phone” toys simulate making phone calls). Presumably, the carts have ROMs that take over part of the address space when plugged in; the more advanced Atari carts had some additional bank-switching logic (triggered by memory-mapped I/O) that allowed multiplexing lots of different game levels into a fixed amount of address space, typically around 4K.

Intriguingly, Bob Brost at CMU taught a class on NES game development and even produced “nBasic”, a BASIC-level (sort of) language that, although it eliminates the need to program in 6502 assembly, it does not seem to eliminate the need to understand the arcane programming approach required by these devices, i.e. you have to time your code around the vertical retrace interval (only “safe” to write GPU registers during vertical retrace to avoid flickering/loss of picture sync), etc.

So my questions would be: is this level of programming abstraction going to be sufficient to catalyze the development of a lot of “edu-ware” for these devices? Given that the source of this “edu-ware” is ultimately (we hope) going to be programmers in the very countries in which the devices are sold, should we be looking for something that enables a much higher level of abstraction for development—say, something more like Scratch—and port a subset of it to this 8-bit world?

(Update: the Design For Developing Countries wiki has a lot of great information about their progress and preliminary studies.)

(For the curious, the NES has:

  • a 1.9MHz 8-bit 6502

  • 32K ROM address space for game code & data (typically 16K code, 16K swappable to store different “levels” data)

  • 240w x 248h viewable graphics (NTSC or PAL) organized as 8×8 pixel “tiles” for the purposes of color palette assignment, sprite rendering, etc.

  • system, background and foreground color palettes (64, 16 and 16 entries respectively)

  • up to 64 sprites (8×8 or 8×16 pixels, 3 colors + transparent color, no more than 8 sprites per scanline)

  • 4 synthesizer channels (2 square waves, 1 triangle, 1 white noise) with ~6 octave range; one note per channel at a time

What are the hard problems? Distribution of software specifically, and communication in general, since the device has no comms built in; any storable user data, since the device has no persistent storage (though PowerPlay have mated a CF flash card to it). Now, since cell phones are so unbelievably common even among the poorest in India, even the cheapest ones can do simple text-only Internet browsing, and all come with some limited amount of nonvolatile storage (though I’m not sure it’s programmer-addressable), might this be a good short project—mating inexpensive cell phones to $10 TV computers? Maybe something to do in time for the next Maker Faire…

I have to admit, the pervasive availability of $10 TV-computers is awfully compelling, as someone who remembers very vividly what remarkable things can be done within the constraints of these old 6502 systems.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Kindle DX & the textbook & news industries

I was pretty excited about the Kindle DX announcement yesterday. In fact I had ordered an iRex iLiad Book Edition, and ended up cancelling that order to pre-order a Kindle DX. Both have full-page-size native PDF rendering; the iLiad gives me the ability to mark up/write on the screen, whereas the Kindle DX gives me the ability to have all my other Kindle books. It was a tough call, but the iLiad’s not likely to go up in price so I saw no downside to cancelling my order even if I decide to reinstate it later.

I have to admit I’m puzzled about some of my colleagues’ pessimism surrounding the proposed deals with textbook publishers and pilot programs at various colleges for e-textbooks. Maybe I’m overly optimistic but I see a win here for publishers, students and faculty. As a student, I would have loved to avoid carrying around 40 pounds of books. Also, most textbooks are revved very frequently, and a lot of paper is wasted when old editions are discarded; the tree-hugger in me cringes at the thought of how many books are thrown away. Yes, students currently benefit from the used textbook market because they can recapture part of their investment by selling back their textbooks each semester, but the even as the books are replaced by e-books that enjoy bigger margins.

But more importantly, in the long term I believe students will also benefit because a lot of textbooks are already available online free or nearly-free from their academic authors, and there areseveral movements and organizations working to make textbooks more affordable and to create open-source textbooks. Large-screen ebook readers provide a low-cost distribution mechanism for them (creating an e-book that is friendly to small display sizes is not trivial, especially if there are lots of graphs, equations or technical figures). Over time I suspect that e-book prices will fall to the point that students will, in fact, either experience a net savings compared to the current practice of buying and later re-selling their used physical textbooks, or be willing to pay parity price but not have to lug books around. (And the DRM used on Kindles doesn’t prevent buybacks or textbook rentals; it just hasn’t been implemented.)

On another note, I also noticed the new deals announced with various newspapers to . This is an interesting approach, and I wondered why not do this for small-screen Kindles also, but then I read Robert Fabricant’s interesting piece on FastCompany on how the physical layout geometry (and therefore the size) of print media matters for news & journalism in a way that doesn’t apply to other kinds of print media. The idea that you can juxtapose stories, points of view, etc. by putting them side-by-side in a newspaper layout is something that might kind-of work on the Kindle DX, but wouldn’t work at all on the 6-inch Kindle.

Maybe the best short-term thing about the DX announcement is the “trickle-down effect”: a pronounced increase in the number of used Kindle 1’s and Kindle 2’s on Craigslist at a price point that people might actually find palatable (I’ve seen as low as $150). Well, Mothers’ Day is coming…

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