Yes! A new update to my Apple TV has been released! This is going to be awesome! Woo-hoo! Look at... um... yeah, huh, look at that. The menus. They’re all different and stuff. And now there’s support for ‘iTunes LP’ and iTunes Store video with bonus DVD features and other new iTunes-enhanced products that I’ll never buy. Um...hooray?
C’mon, Apple. This is embarrassing. You are not ‘that company’. You have a lean and energised product list and when both you and the marketplace lose interest in a product, it’s gone. Is the Pippin still on the market? Is the Apple PowerCD anywhere in the Apple Store? How’s my LaserWriter coming?
And yet you persist in your insane allegation that the Apple TV is something you give... (here I must check with my editor)... two lower-intestinal peristolic deposits about.
You released the device to great fanfare. And then a couple of years ago Mr Jobs sheepishly admitted that the first edition was a bit of a damp squib, and that you folks had completely rethought it for version 2.0. Humble and human. It played great. Then the version 3.0 announcement. The Apple TV, as usual, played adequately but without much inspiration. What’s gone wrong with this thing, anyway?
For answers, I turn to my own kitchen/family room. That’s where I keep my Apple TV, hooked up to a 24in HD screen. Suffice to say it leads a pampered life free from stress and obligations; it’s main contribution to the household is to keep its power LED illuminated. To tell the truth, when I updated the OS to 3.0 it was the first time I’d used the thing in weeks.
Lessons to learn
The Apple TV is such a great concept, and I’m precisely the sort of consumer who could get the most of it. I get all my video and audio entertainment digitally. I have more than a terabyte of movies, TV shows, music, and podcasts on my main iTunes library and I often stream content to whatever Mac or PC I happen to have at hand anywhere in the house. I’m surprised Apple didn’t turn up at my house with a camera crew and a black turtleneck for me to do a series of demo videos. But I just don’t use the thing. The Apple TV’s potential role has been usurped by two far more modest devices.
First, there’s my iPod Hi-Fi. It’s a perfectly fine set of speakers but really, any iPod/iPhone dock with amplified speakers could take its place. After driving home, I remove the iPhone from my car dock, drop it into the iPod Hi-Fi dock, and continue listening to the podcast or audiobook right where I left off as I start to make dinner.
I could use the Apple TV instead. If I dock the iPhone to my iMac, it’ll tell my central iTunes library that I’ve only made it through the first nine hours and thirty-seven minutes of the new Larry King memoir on audiobook, and restart playback from the correct position. Or, I could just drop the iPhone in the Hi-Fi dock and start rinsing rice and beans.
Lesson one of Apple TV’s failure: It’s designed around the idea that my iTunes library is the hub of my media experience. It isn’t. My media experience centres around my iPhone.
Solution? Add a dock to the Apple TV. One that allows both simple play through and full sync modes and makes the iPhone ‘reachable’ from any iTunes on the network. Instantly, my Apple TV would become ‘the place where the iPhone goes’.
Okay, but why am I not even using the Apple TV for video? The answer sits on top of the Apple TV like a big, black tick sucking away its reason for existing: I have a Roku.
For half the cost of an Apple TV, I bought a simple box that streams internet video to my HDTV. Primarily I use it for Netflix Streaming. I can visit Netflix.com and select from a TV and movie library that far exceeds iTunes. I pick up the remote, and they’re all there for instantaneous play. It’s ‘all you can eat’ content for a mere ten bucks a month.
I can purchase movies on iTunes for about what they cost on DVD. I can rent them for three or four bucks. That’s great. I’ll definitely do that, after I’ve watched all 322 Netflix movies in my streaming queue and I get so desperate for video entertainment that I decide to actually spend money on pay-as-you-go entertainment.
Lesson two of Apple TV’s failure: People still don’t like to pay for television. At least not when they associate it with the horrible experience of spending $3.99 (£3.49) just to turn off Paul Blart: Mall Cop after the first 10 minutes. The iTunes Store needs some sort of a subscription model or else Netflix and other streaming services will simply run away with the market for online video.
I keep wondering why Apple doesn’t just put the Apple TV out of its misery. The iPod Hi-Fi was quietly removed from its price list after 18 months... a typical run for an Apple product that failed to set the world on fire. The Apple TV strikes me as that slightly broken chair in the garage that’s too rickety to use but still too good to throw away. Apple knows it’ll do something with it someday.
This new software update seems to bear that out. Yes, it’s thin on new features. But I couldn’t help but notice that its list of functions is no longer a box of cells. It’s a horizontal menu bar. You can run out of room in a box. But you can add an infinite number of new items to a bar that can keep scrolling to the left and to the right.
Maybe that’s a hint about the product’s future: services and plug-ins. If my Apple TV could support Netflix, and Major League Baseball, and ‘tune’ my favourite video podcasts and live streams like any other TV channel, I suspect I’d be finding a new place for my Roku. Rumours abound that Apple is negotiating with major broadcasters to offer a package of commercial content for a monthly fee, but you and I know how to deal with rumours.
Until then, the Apple TV continues to gamely keep its power LED illuminated. I suspect that like a house cat, it’s grateful I’ve spent the past hour paying attention to it but on the whole, it’d much rather be left in peace.