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Google Chromecast road test – initial thoughts

We recently started trialling Google Chromebook laptops at Rokk Media. The verdict from staff is that they are a really viable alternative to Windows or an Apple Macbook Pro for general business use (particularly as we are a company-wide Google Apps user) – but only when dedicated applications outside of the Google universe aren’t needed to be run from the device.

Google have recently rolled out its Google Chromecast device in the UK which adds additional value to Chromebooks by allowing streaming of onscreen content directly to an HDMI enabled monitor or TV. This is perfect for running presentations or simply sharing browser based content for example.

The Chromecast is being promoted showing various content on a TV screen from YouTube, Netflix, BT Sport etc., so a would-be purchaser would be forgiven for thinking that once connected these would be ready to watch out of the box in the same way as, say the Apple TV set-top box, or an internet-ready TV set , but this is not the case. In essence the Chromecast works in harmony with an existing and separate device acting as a bridge between the device, content running on it, and the TV or monitor. It contains no content itself – in fact it doesn’t even come with a remote control.

Google are working with third party content providers to ensure as many of their apps can stream to the Chromecast as possible for putting content on your TV. At the time of writing that includes Netflix, YouTube, BT Sport, BBC iPlayer, Vevo and others (in the UK – other countries do differ, particularly the US). So – and this is the really important point, as well as the Chromecast itself (around £30 direct from Google or Amazon) you will need local wifi and a device capable of running the compatible third party apps. As the Chromecast is from Google you would correctly assume it works best from an Android enabled device including smartphones and tablets, but most of the partner apps are also available on other devices such as iPhone and iPad – and these work perfectly as well also.

As well as mobile devices you can also stream directly from any PC or laptop running the latest version of the Google Chrome browser as long as you are happy to install Google’s platform-specific browser plugin that is. The exception to this is of course with Google Chromebooks where access to the Chromecast is baked in and designed to work seamlessly from the off.

Is it worth getting one? Well, given that every internet enabled television, gaming system and set-top box available today already has most of the content currently available to Chromecast built in, including the headlining Netflix, BBC iPlayer and YouTube apps, if you have any of these devices and that is your only goal there isn’t any real point. However, if you are looking for a way to stream photos and videos from your Android device (not possible currently outside of a Google app on your iOS device other than loading each individual file into the browser window one by one) or to show content from your computer’s Chrome browser window on a TV or monitor, then this is a very affordable solution when compared to an Apple TV for Mac OSX or Windows.

It’s worth also noting that it is possible to stream local content from a Raspberry Pi in the same way – and the device is still a few pounds cheaper (with lots of other potential uses), but it’s still very much an enthusiasts kit and nowhere near as easy to configure and get up and running as the Chromecast.

So, in summary, don’t be confused into thinking that the Google Chromecast is a set-top box, as it isn’t. You will need at the very least a mobile phone or laptop to use it with the end result simply being a way to share content with more than one person, or on a bigger screen than the one you are streaming from. If that sounds like it solves a particular need then it’s a very affordable solution that works extremely well.

Also read the Rokk Media blog post:  ‘Is Google’s Chromecast Better Than Apple TV’

Why phone manufacturers can’t catch Apple

In a world where enticing users to switch their phone relies on rolling out ever more must-have features, Apple has thrown in a hand-grenade that has literally exploded the market and left other phone makers scratching their heads and playing catch up.

The reason is simple. Apple don’t do features and don’t care who knows it – period. In fact Apple’s mobile devices have lacked features that other phones have had for years and yet this hasn’t mattered one jot to their awe inspiring market penetration.

How so?

Simple marketing psychology. Apple have spent years creating a contemporary aspirational lifestyle brand, given it an equally aspirational premium price tag, and shaped their products to have must have ‘sex appeal’ by rock-star product designers that make the rest of us drool and quiver with desire.

By bringing the same approach to mobile technology they have all but eliminated the competition simply because the telecoms players have no experience in playing that game. While the likes of Nokia, HTC, Sony etc have worked hard to squeeze ever more features and functionality into their essentially identical phones – which has of course been the same approach for technology manufacturers since technology as a product began, Apple have swept away all competition simply by majoring on desire (ironically the name of a Google Android handset – more later). This can be seen every time Apple launches a new product with would-be owners camping out for hours, sometimes days, to be among the first to own the new item. Bragging rights to one side owning an Apple device makes a statement to the world which is simply too compelling for them to ignore.

So what hope the rest? All is definitely not lost. Possibly because of their new found power, or possibly because they are under far more scrutiny, Apple have over the last year or so begun to arguably tarnish their previously untouchable uber-brand by enforcing cynical ring-fencing ploys on their customer base. Customers have discovered that it’s Apple’s way or no way at all. This has also been very evident amongst the developer community who have had to jump through hoops to get their applications published on the ‘i’ range (although this has relaxed slightly of late). The aggregate of this is an ever so slightly bitter taste and a groundswell of dissenting voices which Apple would do well to listen to.

But what’s this? Is this a white steed galloping towards us over the horizon in the shape of Google – or more of the same in a different guise? Interestingly Google, never an outfit known for aspirational marketing has been soaking up market share with it’s Android mobile operating system by playing Glee to Apple’s High School Musical. By appealing to the geekorati who want no part of Apple’s anti-feature walled garden they are gradually knocking on Apple’s dominance, offering an all you can eat without confines approach. The truth of course is that Google’s seemingly Robin Hood saves the day model masks it’s true desire (oops, there’s that phone again) which is to create the widest advertising platform the world has ever seen. However, as Mcdonald’s and those cute little cleaner fish that hang around with sharks all know – if you give something away for free with few conditions, your customer base don’t mind you taking a little back for yourself in return. 

Apple have a war chest the size of Bill Gate’s bedroom safe now though so it’s a sure fire bet they won’t relinquish their strangle hold that easily. That said, Google’s Italian lined leather wallet is fairly sizeable also – so a royale with cheese size battle is definitely in the offing between the two 21st century techno-empires.

Whatever the future holds for Apple, few can fail to be impressed by how cleverly they have played their game, literally developing micro-markets where before there were none. Whether this dominance will persist in a post-Steve Jobs world, or whether Google manages to reach global domination sweeping away all other comers remains to be seen, but one thing remains true for now, we love our iPhones and iPads and look forward to the next Jobs keynote with dribbly relish!  

If you are contemplating iPhone, iPad, Android, or Microsoft Phone development, please get in touch.

Spotify for iPhone – a quick review

So, after much ado, the will-they won’t-they app of the year has finally arrived for the iPhone – Spotify. Although it’s free to download you won’t get past the first screen (login) without a premium account! It’s a shame that Spotify doesn’t allow even a limited number of plays as a taster as I’m sure the sign-ups would increase as a result. Furthermore Spotify’s Day Pass won’t count either – it’s Premium or nothing!! OK, so after confirming that the Premium account can be cancelled at any time I decided to take the plunge and sign-up. I figured that if I found myself not using it after a couple of weeks I’d simply cancel. Spotify allow you to sign up for a month, or twelve. The bizarre thing is that you only will save the princely sum of 12p (15c) if you opt for the twelve months bulk purchase – hardly an incentive! I’d probably have gone with twelve months if it were 10-15% cheaper as well. Oh well, probably a licensing issue. Sign up is easy however and if you have your desktop version running you will see a confirmation message virtually as soon as you press the submit button! If you have built up a ton of playlists – as I have, within your desktop version you will be over the moon to see that the lists are faithfully reproduced on the iPhone from the get-go. Your playlists are simply pointers to files stored within the Spotify server cluster – and so the data file is relatively small.

All your favourite features are there within the app. The ability to create new playlists and search for music to put within them as well as options to manage existing playlists are all an intuitive finger press away at any point. Spotify for iPhone has a few really nice tricks up its musical sleeve. Firstly, playback is virtually instant under wifi (although I do have a 20mb connection both at home and at the office so that may help!) with a play screen not too dissimilar from the iPod. Scrubbing through a track is also fast. A slight fade out and then back in at the new point is a nice feature and playing from the new point in the timeline is again a fraction of a second via wifi. Possibly under pressure, and despite it being a clear threat to iTunes music sales, Apple waved this app through even though it also has the ability to stream music via 3G – and therefore upset the mobile networks. Of course whether you want to do that will depend upon the data plan you have. But for those a little nervous about clocking up the bits Spotify for iPhone allows you to download tracks before heading out away from your wifi connection. This takes a little time however (about as long as downloading a track via iTunes which can be quite some time for a standard CD’s worth). If you get fed up waiting, or need to break away from the app it will resume from where you left off as soon as you fire it up again, another nice touch. The quality of the audio is excellent. At rates of up to 320kbps this compares admirably with the highest quality iTunes offerings.

Of course the one major sticking point for some is that you can only continue to use the application – and therefore listen to your music on the run, as long as you maintain a Premium account (or revert to the ads supported desktop version). However, if like me you have an eclectic taste in music and enjoy exploring (or hunting down songs from yesteryear for old times sake that you wouldn’t dream of owning!) this is a perfect way to enjoy unlimited tunes as and when the mood takes you. With many of the major record labels as investors in Spotify the catalogues on offer are vast and I’ve found very few instances where a track or artist was not catered for and I’m sure that will only improve. Happy listening!