Would you pay $10/month for “Hulu Pro”?

First off, I want to say that I’ll probably be one of the first to sign up for a $10 Hulu subscription when it’s available. That said, I have a sneaking suspicion that the service won’t be that long-lived. And the reason is closely linked to many, many big startups over the past 10 years.

After seeing some videos from the Startup Lessons Learned conference today (and spending the last 5 years of my life at startups), I’m struggling a bit with the idea of companies that launch with a “go get lots of users, we’ll monetize them later” mentality.

For every Google, there are a hundred MySpaces that get huge with no business model, then don’t stand up in the harsh light of a quarterly report. Hulu, Twitter, and Facebook are all in that perilous transition period where user base isn’t good enough anymore.

Hulu is especially interesting to me, because it represents about 90% of the content that’s piped into my house. Almost a year ago, I shut off our satellite service in favor of streaming over the Web. We have a Mac Mini hooked to our TV, and most of our media consumption is through Hulu Desktop.

I’m convinced Hulu Desktop is the most forward-thinking app in the current crop of media players. It’s more vital than Boxee, VLC, Plex, or even iTunes. These are solutions that are primarily geared toward people who amass and store media locally, while Hulu recognizes that I don’t care to store a huge amount of content… I just want to watch it.

So it’s like the worlds biggest TiVo, and it went ahead and recorded everything on TV for me, with a fantastic interface for browsing the content.

The most important thing Hulu Desktop does is exactly what convinced my wife to watch TV on a computer: you turn it on, and it starts playing. This concept is so much a part of the fabric of set-top devices over the last 30 years that I’m shocked it eludes modern software. Every modern set-top media box seems to want to dump you into a heirarchal menu, requiring you to make a series of complex choices before you can watch TV… even the Apple TV (though I hear that’s due to change soon).

Let me repeat: the most important thing you can do when showing media on TV for the mass market (I.e. “non-techies”) is to just start playing something when the device is turned on. When a show ends, it shows me the next episode, or something similar. It plays the NBC Thursday night comedies in order, and it follows up Stewart with Colbert (at least, it used to). The people behind Hulu get it.

On top of that, they’re handling the subscription model very well… If it adds enough features. A free service suddenly switching to a pay model is usually a kiss of death, but the addition of premium services is the backbone of the “freemium” model that has a fighting chance of success.

Now the bad news: I think Hulu is doomed.

Hulu’s eventual downfall will be due to a slow degradation of service, at the hands of greedy and fearful media conglomerates. And it’s already begun: though the show’s creators wanted all episodes online, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” yanked all but the last 5 episodes in Hulu’s first PR blunder a couple of years back.

More recently, Viacom yanked Jon Stewart and Colbert altogether. All this taught me is that I can live without them. Nice work, Viacom!

So is a $10/month subscription model likely to stem the tide of this gradual degradation? Not likely. Media giants like Rupert Murdoch have already proven to be so short-sighted and afraid of change that I think Hulu will constantly have to fight for its life against the media companies that created it. And it will lose.

I worked for a startup that had a great product that had thousands of loyal customers. But the product could never live up to the billion-dollar expectations that fueled massive overspending in building it. From that point on, the product could never be financially viable: the cost to build it was ten times what the market would bear.

I think Hulu is doomed in a similar way. It’s the media companies trying to collect pennies where they are accustomed to demanding briefcases of money. Yes, these pennies are better than nothing, but no, it’s not going to provide the budget to create another Lost. Hulu, while a great service overall, is based on a fundamental misunderstanding about the direction of media on the internet: that the money they used to make from TV content through mass advertising will magically come from the interwebs.

Big Old Media is both what makes Hulu so compelling (big-budget content on the web!) and the millstone around its neck (big-budget content… on the web?!?).

Still, I look forward to seeing the features that $10 buys me, until the media companies ruin it. I’d love access to a larger back catalog of episodes, so I can catch up on Fringe. Maybe it’ll even bring back Colbert. But not for too long, I’d wager.

UPDATE: While editing this post, I saw that NBC’s Thursday night lineup is not on Hulu yet, as it has been on every Friday night for the last year. The rules of Hulu are constantly shifting, and always out of favor of the user. I’ll be sad if I have to fire Hulu as my primary media source before they even have a chance to launch the subscription service.

In short, you can’t make your service suck just a little more each week and expect people to flock in instead of out.

Despite all this, am I the only one who’s still signing up?

Is obsolescence becoming obsolete?

Today, Apple announced new MacBooks and MacBooks Pro (that’s right, I said MacBooks Pro). And I couldn’t care less.

I’ve got an 18-month-old Unibody MacBook Pro that I’ve dirtied, scratched, scraped, dropped, dented, and abused. And I honestly think it’ll be my main machine for at least 12 more months. And this is coming from a guy who used to upgrade every 6-8 months. What gives?

For one, I have an iPad. At 1 GHz and with 256MB of RAM, it sounds like it’s a ten-year-old computer, which is why you don’t see Apple bragging about the specs. But nobody really cares. I do nearly half of my computing on this machine now, and don’t find many occasions to open the laptop unless I’m at work.

Second, I bought an SSD. Forget gigahertz, the new standard is MBps. (And that’s even for those of us who care about such measurements.) Most people don’t yet realize that the reason they constantly see spinning beach balls isn’t that their computer is too slow, it’s that they’re relying on slow, inefficient, and increasingly crashy hard disks for storage.

After 2 failed hard disks in 3 months (admittedly, one was because I dropped my laptop), I opted for the Crucial RealSSD C300. It’s arguably the fastest SSD out there right now, and at $700 for 256GB, definitely in “early adopter” territory. Still, I would much, much rather have this upgrade than a new MacBook Pro. In daily life, things that took minutes now take seconds.

And it’s a confluence of these factors is breaking the traditional notion of “obsolete”. The tasks you ask of a computer are often small, like playing YouTube videos or word processing, and these are easily within the grasp of my iPad. But even the most demanding tasks like running Photoshop or editing a video can be done quite effectively on a 3-year-old laptop.

Do you remember a time when you cared about how many colors your monitor could display? It used to be that there was so much we wanted to display on a computer, but our hardware could only render one color, then sixteen, then 256, and then thousands. Then, about 10 years ago, we settled on “millions”, and never thought about it again.

I think that this time is approaching with processor speed. The gap is wider between “benchmarked speed” and “real-world speed” than ever. The Core i7 technology excites my inner geek, and I’d love to convert some video with it. But that’s not what I do on a day-to-day basis.

Intel has made the new processor inside the new MacBooks faster by a factor of two, by many benchmarks. But in the real world, my life would not improve by a factor of two. My “computing quality of life” might increase by 5%. That’s odd, because my solid state disk had a much bigger impact than 5%, and the vastly-less-powerful iPad has improved my computing life by at least a factor of two.

We’re now focused on removing bottlenecks like disk speed (using solid state disks) and RAM (by using 64-bit software to address more than 4GB), or even interface elements (think eliminating the mouse). My computing life is much faster, more efficient, and more fun than it was 18 months ago, and it has nothing to do with there being “Intel inside”.

12 Killer Apps for iPad

I wasn’t going to write this post on my iPad. It felt like a bit of a cliché, you know? Plus, I thought it would be a bit like fighting with one hand tied behind my back. And it is, to some degree; I type about half as fast as I do on a laptop.

So why go through with it then? Because the iPad is so fun to use, I don’t feel like getting out my laptop.

I have my share of gripes and praises for the iPad, but it’s just 9.7 inches of blank screen without the apps to make it useful. And they do. In fact, “revolutionary” is not going too far.

So, with the aid of the iPad’s WordPress app, here are 12 apps I already can’t live without.

The first thing I want to say is that the iPad is an absolute joy to use. By that I mean that using the iPad elicits actual joy. Everyone was wondering what the killer app for the iPad would be. I think that the killer app might just be the experience of using an iPad, period. But to better answer the question, the answer is twofold:

– Everyone’s going to have their own version of the iPad’s killer app.
– You are going to find at least 10 killer apps within your first 48 hours

Here are 12 of mine.
READING:
I bought the iPad primarily as a reading device. It has already delivered on more than its promise. It’s not hard to imagine having an entire page of apps dedicated to the various types of reading I do. My favorites right now:

GoodReader ($1)
Without solid PDF support, I wouldn’t be able to read programming books on the iPad, and that would be a deal breaker (lame PDF support caused me to return both the Kindle and Sony Reader). Although the PDFs don’t render with lightning speed and the page turning mechanic is wonky (honestly, who turns pages from top to bottom?), this is an app that already shows maturity. I threw a 500MB PDF at it, and it cut through it with ease. GoodReader also has a raft of network-aware features, and although they’re a bit more geared toward power users, they handily circumvent Apple’s insane methods of getting files on and off the iPad.

iBooks (free)
iBooks is the app that always elicits the remark, “now they’re just showing off”. Graphical flourishes aside, it’s fast, beautiful, and fun to read books on. I had serious concerns about eyestrain, but those proved to be unfounded after fiddling with the brightness a bit. The included Winnie the Pooh book was a bit of unexpected genius; a sign of things to come as you dig deeper into the iPad experience.

Marvel Comics (free)
This is another app that really shows off what the iPad can do. I’m not a huge comic book fan, but they look so lovely on the iPad’s screen that I may pick one up from time to time.

MEDIA:
Air Video ($3)
It’s an iPhone app, but while the team works on their iPad version, they deserve your 3 bucks. With a simple server app, you have access to all the media stored on your home computer anywhere, even over 3G. Media not encoded in iPad-compatible h.264? No sweat. It’ll convert on the fly while it streams your TV shows & movies, and even pixel-doubled, media looks fine.

Dear, departed Simplify Media ($N/A)
This one is a big WTF. Being able to access my music and photos remotely made this easily one of the most useful apps ever. Simplify not only streams your music from anywhere in the world to your iPad, it allows you to share your entire library with friends (and share theirs in turn). It’s the poster child for the idea that your media shouldn’t have to fill local storage to be accessible. But you can’t buy it, can’t download it, and even if you own it like I do, it will stop working in a couple of months. Rumors are swirling that these guys have been bought by Apple, and the mystery surrounding their disappearance is certainly consistent with past Apple acquisitions.

Sketchbook Pro ($8)
Smart controls and pro-caliber features make this the king of the sketch apps. Using it makes me wish I had more talent. I have seen it do amazing things in the hands of greater men than I.

PRODUCTIVITY:
SugarSync (free)
Apple has crippled this genius app. Access to all my documents, synced automatically from my desktop, anywhere… It’s a fantastic promise. On the iPhone, it doesn’t matter that the documents are read-only. But as soon as you need to edit a word document or save a PDF to GoodReader, you’re out of luck until you go through Apple’s convoluted manual sync process, or email it to yourself (and then it’s a crapshoot). Even with its limitations, SugarSync is a great app and helps point out the gaping hole in Apple’s cloud storage offering.

Instapaper (free)
There’s little to say about Instapaper other than that it’s nearly perfect. It’s a simple premise: save longer web articles for later reading. And what better place for all this to wind up than on your iPad? The “nearly” in “nearly perfect” is because Apple doesn’t allow in-app brightness control from third-party apps (though Kindle for iPad seems to have found a clever workaround).

Evernote (free)
Another simple-but-brilliant idea: all your notes, write once, sync everywhere. Clippings, links, anything you’d rather not forget goes into one safe place.

COUNTERPRODUCTIVITY:
Games were the biggest surprise on the iPad. Aside from the week of my life I lost to fieldrunners, I’m not a big iPhone gamer. But with a larger screen, the games on iPad a compelling enough that I don’t foresee firing up my Xbox or Wii anytime soon.

Geometry Wars ($10)
This was the Xbox 360’s only memorable launch title, and it’s made quite a splash on the iPad. The dual-analog-stick-emulating controls are fantastic, though you need to place your thumbs well inside the bezel to get the best results. It’s quick to pick up, and I feel it pulling at me even now.

Top Gun ($5)
It’s dumb, retro fun. Tilt controls are a great way to experience this game that feels like a cross between Top Gun for NES and After Burner for arcade.

Touch Hockey ($3)
The iPad was made for moments like this. You pull out your tablet, set it on a table, and challenge a friend to a realistic, fast-paced round of air hockey. The highs and lows are just as visceral as the real thing, and it seems like a great way to strike up a conversation with a girl. Try doing that with your Kindle.

The iPad has tremendous potential for graphics capability, and I’m still holding out hope for a beautiful-looking, bumper-grinding arcade racer like Burnout (or an entry in the Burnout series).

Incidentally, the WordPress app for iPad (which I posted this from) is not yet a killer app; it’s a larger version of its iPhone cousin. Give us some HTML formatting help and better image handling, and we’ll talk.

I had to use one other app to make this post: Photogene ($4) to rotate and resize the photo I used in the post. Seems pretty cool, I look forward to using it more.

So there it is: for $30, a great way to start off your iPad experience. $40 if you include Pages, but I haven’t yet found occasion to use it.

I have a lot more to say about the iPad in general, but it can probably wait until I’m at a more comfortable keyboard.