The ball's in your court, Apple.
That's what I took away from Amazon's introduction of the Fire TV. Not that I think that the retail giant's set-top box is leaps and bounds ahead of what Apple--or Roku, or Google--are offering, but it's pretty close to the device that Apple's been shipping for the last few years. If there's a time for Apple to release something that's going to keep it (at least) one step ahead of its competitor, now is it.
Find and seek
Fire TV doesn't necessarily boast the same breadth of content as Roku or the Apple TV, but it is stabbing directly at the weakest point of many of its competitors: discoverability. There's a lot of digital video content out there right now, and nobody's yet figured out how to make it easy to find out where that content is. Instead we wade through countless menus and sub-menus of services, shows, episodes, movies, and so on, tapping out search terms on our little, antiquated five-direction controllers.
If they work as expected, then Fire TV's voice-search capabilities may one-up both the Apple TV and Roku. Offering the feature specifically for search helps get around the problem most users have with a voice interface--namely how you deal with ambient noise, especially the noise generated by the very content you're watching.
Of course, rumors have long suggested that Apple too might jump into this arena by adding Siri to the Apple TV. For my part, I think it would be great if Siri on my iPad or iPhone were aware of my Apple TV, enhancing it in much the same way that Apple's own Remote app lets you take control of the set-top box. But a built-in microphone on the physical remote would probably be more attractive to those without iOS devices.
It's surprising to me that Apple hasn't yet found a way to incorporate Siri into the Apple TV, but I have to believe that's because either it hasn't yet determined the right way to do it or because it hasn't quite managed to shake itself out of the mindset that the Apple TV is a hobby.
The game's afoot
The other major chunk of Amazon's announcement was focused on gaming--which, coincidentally, is also a subject of longstanding scrutiny when it comes to the Apple TV. While this certainly represents Amazon taking a shot at Apple, whose mobile devices have become a major gaming platform, there's also plenty of splash damage for Microsoft and Sony's gaming consoles, as evidenced by Amazon's $40 game controller.
"Many people don't have game consoles--they don't have them because they can't afford them or they don't want to pay for them," Amazon's Peter Larsen said during the press event. "These customers now have to go to their smartphone or tablet and play games there."
As with Siri, games are a place where Apple has held a lead over Amazon, and yet has chosen, thus far, not to focus on bringing those capabilities to its set-top box. Then again, Apple's success at gaming on iOS has come to seem more and more like an accident rather than a savvy business move--the company never expressed much interest in the market on the Mac. The attempts Apple has made to bolster gaming have often seemed half-hearted--Game Center, for one and, more recently, support for game controllers on iOS. The latter has barely caught on so far; initial reviews have been lackluster, at best. In fact much of the success of gaming on iOS often seems to have been accomplished in spite of Apple's own efforts rather than because of them.
This is Amazon's first-generation set-top box, and as such it can reap the benefits of having seen where Apple, Roku, and Google have succeeded and failed over the last several years. So it's not surprising that the device that was announced this week is on par with the current state of the art--it would have been far more surprising had it lagged significantly behind.
Again, that's not to say that Amazon's offering is superior, right out of the gate. It has its advantages (among them, that Amazon can bring its own streaming service, with a recurring monthly subscription, to the party) as well as its disadvantages (it can't yet match all the content Apple offers, nor does it seem to have any feature as singularly compelling as AirPlay).
But for all the noises the company has made about the Apple TV being an area of "intense interest," Apple has yet to really put its money where its mouth is, and show us what's so interesting about it.
From what we've seen of Amazon, it's a company that doesn't mind throwing out an early version of a product that's good, if imperfect, and then quickly iterating upon it--just look at all the changes the Kindle has gone through in the past seven years.
Apple, on the other hand, also follows the iterate model, but it likes to roll out devices that feel complete right from the get-go--see the iPod and iPhone--and then improve them as the state of technology improves.
With Amazon's entrance, most of the major tech companies now have a foothold in the living room. Over the past decade, we've seen plenty of skirmishes and forays into this market, but it's not hard to see that the battle is finally beginning in earnest.