Say it ain’t so, HBO!

Bloomberg reported yesterday that HBO has rejected Netflix’s offers to stream content through the Netflix video on demand service. Instead, HBO plans to concentrate on their HBO Go service, for which they plan an iPad app in addition to offering video on demand through some cable systems. Responding to questions about HBO’s desire to go it alone, president Eric Kessler responded, “There is value in exclusivity.”
Perhaps there is, but sadly, HBO is leaving some of that value on the table, because HBO Go is only available to current subscribers to their cable channel. I watch a couple of HBO shows, but not enough that I’m willing to subscribe to their premium cable channel. In fact, I’d really like to get rid of my cable subscription altogether, a goal that’s getting more realistic by the day with services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and iTunes. But HBO apparently isn’t interested in customers like me. If  don’t have cable TV service, HBO won’t allow me to buy a subscription to HBO Go, even if I were willing to pay the full price of their premium cable channel.

Now, in my ideal world, HBO would offer episodes for sale a la carte through iTunes, the way most other TV shows (and some of HBO’s back catalog) are sold. But I can imagine how their subscription model, in which you have to buy the whole package, makes sense for them and provides some guaranteed income. The problem is, the subscription model doesn’t need to rely on cable TV. Just saying “we have an iPad app” isn’t going to help very much when those iPad users start deciding that they no longer want to pay Comcast $50/month for shoddy service. iPad owners likely to be the first ones to ditch their cable subscriptions. Why not let them pay for the content, even if it’s on a subscription basis, regardless of whether they have cable?

Web apps vs. iOS apps

Craig Hockenberry, in a post on A List Apart, on web apps vs. iOS apps:

iTunes offers you a simple way to charge users for content. It can be a one-time payment via app purchase, or a recurring payment (such as a subscription) with in-app purchases. In either case, a customer only has to tap on a buy button and enter their password. Apple handles all the payment processing and accounting. You just wait for bank deposits from around the world at the end of each month.

My guess is this has a lot to do with it. As Hockenberry also points out, it’s easy to pay for things on the App Store. There’s no typing of credit card numbers and billing zip codes. Just enter your iTunes password, and you’re done. Easy as pie.

Google App Inventor

NYT’s David Pogue recently got a chance to try out Google’s still-in-beta App Inventor. He finds that it includes a fair number of bugs and also very much overhypes the claim that it “requires NO programming knowledge.” Neither of these surprises me a whole lot. Bugs are to be expected, and forgiven, in beta software – that’s what the “beta” means. So, too, is the fact that some level of programmer-savvy is required. You may not need to know the ins and outs of a language’s syntax, but familiarity with basic programming ideas seems like a reasonable requirement. I can’t think of any product that has successfully gotten around the need to understand basic software development concepts. (Hypercard is the closest approximation I can think of.)
No, to me the most interesting point is Pogue’s experience with devices:

Above all, a would-be App Inventor app inventor must contend with the differences in every Android phone model. The Droid X phone I was using, for example, refused to communicate with my computer until, at the suggestion of a Google technician, I changed the U.S.B. connection mode to exactly the opposite of what the tutorial recommended. Eventually, Google plans to provide pointers to the quirks and eccentricities of each phone.

This is exactly why I’m not interested in becoming an Android developer, and it’s something that doesn’t seem to get much attention. Even if Google could work out the bugs associated with odd USB settings and other hardware quirks, you’re still fundamentally dealing with a ton of different configurations. Does the device have a hardware keyboard, or not? What size and resolution is the screen? Does it support multi-touch? Does it have a scroll wheel/scroll ball? How fast is the processor and how much memory is available? What version of Android is it running? That’s just the beginning of a long list of problems for Android that Google doesn’t seem to have any plan for addressing.

A Missed Opportunity in VolumeSnap

A number of sources are reporting that the fantastic Camera+ app has been pulled from the App Store:

tap tap tap posted (and later deleted) instructions on Twitter that allowed users to enable the “volume button as shutter” functionality via a back door workaround. This is most likely what got Camera+ kicked off the App Store; other apps with “hidden features” or “easter eggs” like this have been banished from the App Store before, like a flashlight app that allowed users to stealthily enable internet tethering.

The feature in question could be activated only by opening Safari on the iPhone and entering a custom URL, which then communicated with the Camera+ app. (In case you’re curious the URL is: camplus://enablevolumesnap).

Apple is certainly well within the terms of the developer agreement to remove Camera+ for sneaking the feature past its reviewers, and you might say that enforcing that policy helps keep all sorts of insidious apps out of the App Store. However, I think Apple missed an opportunity here. As was well documented on their blog, the developers of Camera+ tried to include “VolumeSnap” as a documented feature of the app. Apple rejected it, citing possible user confusion about the function of the iPhone’s volume buttons. That’s not unreasonable – I wasn’t confused, but I can imagine some iPhone users who might be. You could even argue that making VolumeSnap an option, available through the app’s settings, could be confusing.

But what if Apple had chosen a third path, somewhere between rejection and allowing the app with full VolumeSnap functionality. Simply put, what if Apple had allowed the URL-based VolumeSnap activation to remain in the app as a documented, tested feature? Most users wouldn’t be confused at all, because the VolumeSnap feature is disabled by default, nor is there any visible way of activating it. The only people affected would be those who are savvy enough to find the activation URL and enter it into Safari. Presumably, these are pretty sophisticated users who would be unlikely to get confused by the VolumeSnap feature. Moreover, if they’re sophisticated enough to turn the feature on, it’s a good bet they could figure out how to turn it off as well.

How many iPhones could Verizon sell?

John Gruber wonders how many iPhones Verizon could sell the first weekend:

I think they could sell at least one million on Verizon over the opening weekend. Who knows how many loyal-to-Verizon customers are just biding their time, waiting for an iPhone, though? Could be more.

The interesting variable here is the subsidy. Since the introduction of the iPhone 3G, AT&T has subsidized the price of the device in exchange for a two-year contract. That’s pretty standard in the cell phone business – the carrier gives you a deal on the phone in exchange for guaranteed business for a couple of years. Every so often, usually 18-24 months, the carrier will offer the customer a new phone at the subsidized price, contingent on extending that contract another 2 years.

Potential buyers of a Verizon iPhone fall into three groups: (1) people who would switch to Verizon and buy an iPhone as a new customer, (2) current Verizon customers who are eligible for a new, subsidized phone, and (3) current Verizon customers who are not eligible for a subsidized phone. My guess is that most iPhone buyers on Verizon, especially on opening weekend, would fall into group 3. If you’re someone who would buy an iPhone the first weekend it’s available on Verizon, chances are you haven’t been walking around with a crusty RAZR in your pocket for the last 6 years.

If a large number of would-be Verizon iPhone buyers wouldn’t normally be eligible for a subsidized upgrade, the opening weekend numbers suddenly hinge on whether Verizon is willing to offer the subsidized price to everyone. Although I’m sure there are some die-hard Verizon users out there who’d be willing to pay $599 for an unsubsidized iPhone, I doubt it would be enough to drive big launch numbers. If Verizon is willing to sell subsidized iPhones to any current customer, I think we can expect a huge day of sales. If not, the numbers might be considerably more modest.

First Post!

I’m wading back in to the world of blogging. My current thought is that I’ll keep this mostly technology-focused, but some little odds and ends may slip in along the way.