Friday, April 07, 2006

"Drop and Give Me OS X, Soldier!"

Apple’s announcement of Boot Camp earlier this week has stirred the kind of controversy usually reserved for, well, Apple’s announcements. For those of you living under a rock, Boot Camp is a new addition to OS X that enables Windows XP to be installed and run on any of the new Intel-based Macs. Boot Camp is currently in beta, and will be shipped as a standard component of Leopard, the next version of OS X.

Reviews to date have been very positive—Macs running Boot Camp perform at least as well as equivalent non-Apple computers when running Windows XP. The only major difference seems to be that video performance for some games on the Macs isn’t quite up-to-par with the native Windows machines.

The release of Boot Camp has unleashed a wave of punditry and Monday-morning quarterbacking, most of which claims that it’s:

  • The end of Apple,
  • The end of OS X, or
  • A sign of the Apocalypse
I think that it’s an extremely shrewd move by Apple to dramatically increase the Mac’s market share. It’s taken from the same playbook that Apple used for iTunes.

You probably remember that when the iPod was first released, it only worked with Macs. Demand for the iPod from Windows users was so high that third-party developers came up with software to make them work together. Then, Apple released the iTunes software and music store, which like the iPod worked only with the Mac. However, in October 2003, Apple released a version of iTunes for Windows. The rest is history: The latest research shows that Apple has 93% of the U.S. market for digital audio players and more than 70% of the market for legal audio uploads.

With Boot Camp, Apple gets the chance to do it again. Apple’s share of the personal computer industry has been stuck at 3% to 5% for years. What’s been the biggest knock against the Mac? It couldn’t run Windows, and Windows had enormously more software and hardware support than OS X. That objection goes away with Boot Camp. With one move, just as with iTunes, Apple opened up the other 95% of the market for itself.

Some people say that the availability of Windows support will negate the need for OS X. In a lot of cases, that will be true. Once Windows Vista supports the Extensible Firmware Interface (EFI) that’s used in the Intel Macs instead of a BIOS, it’ll be possible to run Windows on a Mac without OS X at all. However, customers that buy a Mac will always get OS X thrown in for free. Even if they only sample what OS X can do, they’ll see that it’s just plain easier to use than Windows. They’ll also see that the user interface and standard media tools such as iMovie and iDVD are far ahead of their Windows counterparts in power and ease of use.

For media producers, Apple’s hard-core audience, I’m sure that applications such as Final Cut Pro, DVD Studio Pro and Motion will remain OS X-only indefinitely. However, producers wedded to Windows-only tools like Adobe Premiere Pro can now use them with the Apple applications on the same machine. Switching from OS X to Windows and vice versa will require a reboot, but it should be possible to mount one operating system’s disk partition from the other OS, so that files can be shared between applications.

Apple’s hardware designs are head and shoulders above virtually every Wintel manufacturer’s products. In my new job, I was assigned a Powerbook G4. I’ve used Macs since they first came out, but I’ve never used a Mac notebook. Although there are some quirks of the Powerbook that take some time getting used to, the overall design puts every Wintel notebook out there to shame. If I had the bucks, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy a MacBook Pro, even if I was planning to use it almost exclusively for Windows.

When Leopard ships, I expect to see Intel-based Macs running OS X and Windows XP side-by-side in Apple Stores, in order to demonstrate how well the new Macs run Windows. The demo will also seduce Windows buyers to plunk down more cash for a Mac: “Wow! I can get Windows plus all the Mac features? Where do I sign?”. It may be heretical, but I think that you’ll also start seeing copies of Windows XP on the software shelves in Apple Stores, in inconspicuous positions, “solely for the convenience of our customers.”

Apple’s competitors will no longer be able to sell against the company with the phrase “It doesn’t run Windows.” The easy sell is gone, and the personal computer industry is going to be shook up in ways that it hasn’t been for years.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Death of Public Broadcasting

I just turned on Harry Shearer’s “Le Show” on my local public radio station, and learned that they were running a pledge break. (Pledge campaigns, for those of you from outside the U.S., are typically two-week periods during which regular radio and television programming are both interrupted and cut short by numerous requests for donations. Most public radio and TV stations run at least three pledge campaigns a year.) I immediately turned the radio off and made a note to avoid that station for the next two weeks.

Public radio stations, run for decades under the assumption that they had no real competition for their listening audiences, now find themselves competing on multiple fronts. For example, subscribers to XM and Sirius satellite radio have a wealth of public broadcasting shows to choose from; Sirius even has two channels dedicated to National Public Radio. Neither channel carries any pledges. In addition, most popular public radio shows are podcast on a national basis.

Most public radio stations try to get listeners to become members with a monthly payment of $10/month, or $120.00/year. Both XM and Sirius charge $12.95/month, or less if you prepay for at least a year. For $3 more a month than local public radio, you get over 150 channels of music, news, sports, talk, traffic and weather. You do have to buy a radio, but they’ve been discounted down to almost nothing, and most new cars either come with built-in satellite radio receivers or can be ordered with them. And, by the way, you can still get the public radio stations for nothing if you’re willing to put up with the pledges.

Some public radio stations counter by talking about all the great “bonus gifts” they provide. I learned not to even take the bonus gifts, because they decrease the tax deductibility of pledges. When I did get bonus gifts, they often took months to arrive, and I sometimes had no idea that they were attached to pledges: I started getting a subscription to Atlantic Monthly magazine that I didn’t order, and it took months to figure out that the subscription was a bonus gift for a pledge. Needless to say, I didn’t renew the subscription.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Doom and Gloom at the Movies

For the last sixty years, the movie industry has gone from crisis to crisis. In the 1950’s, it was the advent of television and the government-mandated divestment of movie theaters by the major studios. In the 60’s and 70’s, it was a cultural disconnect that both alienated the baby boomer audience and led to the birth of the independent film movement. In the 80’s, it was pay-TV and the threat of home video (which ultimately became the biggest money-maker for the movie industry,) and in the 90’s it was DVD, which pulled viewers from the theaters and put them on their couches.

Once again, the movie business is in crisis mode. Both ticket sales and revenues have either been flat or have fallen for the last three years. After years of double-digit growth, DVD sales (which have kept the studios afloat) have leveled off. HD DVD and Blu-Ray are an enormous question mark for both movie exhibitors and studios. Exhibitors are being pushed to make massive investments in digital projection equipment with no evidence whatsoever that it will either save money or increase attendance.

One of the industry’s dirty little secrets is that theater attendance has fallen steadily since the 1950’s. Increases in revenues from theatrical exhibition have come almost exclusively from higher ticket prices.

Privately, exhibitors blame the industry’s latest funk on lousy films. Studios blame exhibitors for too many ads before movies, an inability to control talking on cell phones and a lack of concern about picture and sound quality. They both have a point. Publicly, on the other hand, they blame their woes on piracy and technology, and they’re completely off-base.

I believe that the movie studios have fundamentally lost touch with their audience. As one studio after another attempts to up the ante with more and more sophisticated special effects, they seem to have forgotten that stories need to be compelling and characters need to be interesting. The major studios also seem to be in a race to make the most expensive movies, a race that’s been financed by the explosive growth of DVD sales. Now that the DVD market is cooling off, the industry’s cost fetish is no longer sustainable.

Consider a few recent examples: “King Kong” had great special effects and a couple of fine performances from Naomi Watts and Andy Serkis, but it simply shouldn’t have been made. Universal thought that it was a sure thing and put an estimated $300 million into producing and marketing it. Unfortunately, a large part of the potential audience had better things to do than watch a remake of a remake.

The second Star Wars trilogy: All three films were disappointments at the boxoffice, largely due to scripts and characters that never connected with the audience. Compare them with the Lord of the Rings trilogy: Both series of films had great special effects, but the Lord of the Rings trilogy also had a great script, compelling characters and great acting. The result was both tremendous artistic and financial success.

The major studios are trying to pull the coveted 12-to-24 year old male audience away from video games and the Internet, but they don’t have a clue about what that audience really wants. Think about it: Movies have been based on video games from Super Mario Bros. to Doom. None of them has been either artistically or financially successful.

As for the theater owners, they have only themselves to blame for customers fleeing in droves. Ticket prices are at an all-time high, but the audience has to cope with people talking on cell phones, screaming kids, lousy sound, mangled prints and out-of-focus projection. With more and more DVRs in use, television viewers can skip commercials, but the audience in many theaters is forced to watch an ever-increasing number of ads before the main attraction. Thanks to Wal-Mart and its ilk, DVDs don’t cost much more than a single nighttime movie ticket in large cities. It’s no wonder why more and more people are skipping the theaters and instead watching movies on demand and on DVD, at home.

The interesting thing is that all of these problems can be fixed by exhibitors today. In the old days, theaters had ushers who asked viewers who were disturbing other members of the audience to either quiet down or leave. Today, of course, the ushers clean the theaters between shows. Once upon a time, projectionists monitored films from beginning to end, and fixed problems when they happened. Now, one projectionist may be responsible for every projector in a theater with 24 screens, and much of the operations are automatic. If the film goes out of focus or the sound is too soft or loud, an audience member has to go find an usher or ticket taker to tell the projectionist to fix the problem. In the olden days, the only commercial you got was dancing popcorn, soda and candy singing “Let’s go out to the lobby and get ourselves a treat!”. Today, the audience is bombarded with ads dressed up to look like entertainment, but that are anything but entertaining.

The film industry is bleeding from self-inflicted wounds. They have no one to blame for their problems but themselves. Piracy and new technology are red herrings. Their problems will be solved with better movies and theaters run as if their owners actually cared about their audiences. Until then, they won’t see you at the movies.