And lo, Apple has made yet another stab at the Apple TV.
I use the term “stab” colloquially; no one is literally plunging a knife through the Apple TV – though this would have been both a sensible and a futile gesture. Sensible because the poor thing has been limping along in a pathetic limbo between life and death for several years now and it seems like the merciful thing to do. Futile because unless the weapon is a wooden stake, it probably wouldn’t have had any effect. No tech product — certainly no product in the Apple line — has had the same unholy resistance to the natural forces of corporate attention, attrition and ultimate market death as the Apple TV.
This is the device’s third resurrection, after a sheepish ‘Take Two’ re-rollout in 2008 and then a further overhaul of its user interface. But it’s the first true, complete reinvention of a product that had initially seemed merely speculative but then became completely anachronistic. Apple became only the latest of a long line of companies to make a wrong guess about how the average consumer would define an internet-connected TV.
But who could have blamed it? The market for this kind of product feels like the planet that scientists can’t see, but have convinced themselves exists based on the behaviour of other planets nearby.
And yet, no company knows about the public’s transition from physical entertainment media to digital delivery better than Apple. Now that Apple has invited the press to see its hitherto super-double-top-secret iPhone antenna test chamber, the least-documented facility on the Apple campus is the 10m swimming pool filled with the iTunes Store’s weekly takings in the form of tens and twenties that have been crumpled up to make it safe for naked diving.
Apple’s dogged pursuit of the Apple TV is typical for the industry. By the end of November, I’ll have been asked to test four brand new internet TV devices from three other companies. Each will have come to a different conclusion about what consumers want from internet TV. Behold.
Google TV. It’s a showcase for Google’s three biggest offerings. Google Search will let you find TV shows and movies anywhere they’re (legally) available, whether on your DVR, in your programme guide, or out on the web. The hardware is based on the Android OS and can run any existing or Google TV-optimised app. It also incorporates Google’s Chrome browser (including the Adobe Flash plug-in). So a Google-enabled TV can automatically access the full web, including all streaming video sites.
Why it might fail: it’s a Google consumer product, which means that the interface will be a little weird. Google also won’t waste any of its time convincing the public that Google TV is a good idea; it’ll leave that up to the partners building Google TV boxes and incorporating the technology into existing components.
Boxee Box. The main selling point of Boxee is that it’s the only TV platform that appears to be emphatically aimed at the needs of the user instead of the goals of a company. The desktop software doesn’t care where the content comes from or what (non-DRMed) format it’s in. It can be a file on a hard drive, a link in an RSS feed, or even one of the hundreds of thousands of completely legal and utterly legitimate movies and TV episodes available via BitTorrent.
Why it might fail: when Boxee becomes a thing that plugs into a TV just like a DVD player, its user is likely to be part of the same demographic that made Baywatch an international hit. Not much cause for optimism there.
Roku – AKA ‘The one company that’s got it right’, AKA ‘The only company to come up with a TV computer-thingy that the public has actually warmed to’, AKA ‘We should buy one of those and then copy it as closely as legally possible when we design our TV computer-thingy’ – is releasing brand-new hardware in time for Christmas.
Roku’s breakthrough proved to be a simple lack of overarching ambition. It has many features, but for US consumers the fact that Roku delivers tens of thousands of Netflix TV shows and movies is the real selling point.
Hmm: access to Netflix’s enormous library that spans multiple studios and networks (as long as you live in the US); and immensely affordable hardware. It’s a crackpot concept but, by Jove, we might actually have something here.
Why it might fail: something involving a meteor and the end of all life on this planet.
Apple TV, Take Four. Bloodied, battered, bruised, and above all humbled by relentless failure, this is the part of the movie in which Apple TV decides to stop being an iconoclastic maverick and simply learn the lessons offered by the sensei. You look at the specs — hell, you look at the design of the new Apple TV — and you think that a big chunk of the research and development consisted of someone saying: “We should buy one of those Roku boxes then copy it as closely as legally possible.”
Mind you, Apple is taking it far beyond “a simple, £99 black box that streams Netflix’s enormous TV and movie library [US only].” But with these two basic details, Apple has neatly solved Apple TV’s biggest problem: it was an expensive box, and keeping it stoked with commercial entertainment cost a hell of a lot of money.
The Apple TV should ship some time in October but it’ll be at least six months before we know whether or not the fourth time’s the charm. One thing’s already been proven: Apple can learn from past mistakes.