The future and Apple TV

Last week I suggested that when Apple announces new content deals (presumably during Steve Jobs’ Macworld Expo keynote address next week) the Apple TV will become a more compelling device. The number of comments from Doubting Thomases who are either enamored of the Xbox 360 (coupled with Connect360) or simply find the Apple TV’s specs-to-dollars-spent ratio underwhelming compels me to suggest that, in a year’s time, those DTs are going to be as wrong about the Apple TV as their early 21st-century counterparts were about the iPod.

While we’re on the subject of iPods, let’s compare the similarities of then and now.

Yesterday: Prior to the iPod’s release MP3 players existed. They were bulky, slow to transfer data via a barely existent computer interface, and difficult to navigate. The tools necessary for ripping CDs and transferring them to these devices also existed but were just as ungainly.

Apple steps in with the iPod and does nothing more than get it right. The iPod was small, offered a metric ton of storage for those days, transferred music in next to no time, and offered refined interfaces on both the device itself and in the software used to transfer music to it. Like many things Apple does correctly, it found a technology done poorly, did it right, and quickly became the dominant player in that market.

Today: Video-on-demand exists. You can purchase a game console like the Xbox 360 and download videos to it. You can get movies from Amazon’s Unbox for your computer or TiVo. You can stream TV shows with commercials to your computer via Hulu. You can order Pay-Per-View via a cable or satellite TV connection. If you’re willing to wait you can drive to Blockbuster or subscribe to NetFlix.

Each scheme has a certain clunkiness to it. The Xbox is for game geeks—my mother isn’t going to buy one to watch rented movies. Unbox is too slow to deliver content to you and, unless you have a TiVo, you’re stuck watching video on a computer monitor. Hulu is another computer-locked technology (with commercials). Pay-Per-View is fine for realtime watching (or for DVR recording) but the selection is limited. Blockbuster and NetFlix don’t allow for impulse buys.

So workable solutions abound, but not elegant ones. And that’s where Apple TV comes in.

Tomorrow: You’re sitting in front of the new plasma TV Santa stuffed into your very large stocking, wondering what wonders it might be called upon to deliver. Flick on the Apple TV, navigate to the iTunes Store, and browse New Releases, Top TV Episodes, or Top Movies. Make your choice, agree to rent it, and wait a minute for it to begin streaming to your Apple TV.

Your mother calls. You pause the movie and resume when you like. Your daughter walks into the room and demands that you watch Ratatouille rather than Superbad. Switch over to the Pixar flick until her bedtime and then back to Superbad. Turns out you like Superbad so much that you’d like to keep it. Flip back a page and click the Purchase button on the movie’s navigation screen. The rental price is deducted from the purchase price, a flag is flipped, and you now own the movie, which is synced to your computer so that you can transfer it to your iPod and iPhone.

The next day you’re not in front of your TV but rather out and about. You check iTunes on your iPod touch and see that HBO is bringing back Deadwood and the first episode airs tonight. Tap Subscribe, your Apple ID is debited $2.99 (hey, it’s HBO!), and Deadwood is delivered to the iPod as well as to your Apple TV.

You return to castle and couch and, finding you don’t have enough time to watch a TV show, decide to see what’s happening on the Web. No one wants to surf using Apple’s limited remote control so you whip out your iPhone, connect to the Apple TV via Wi-Fi, and use its Apple TV interface to control the device’s Web browser. The resulting web pages are mirrored on your iPhone. Flick down the iPhone’s screen and the page on your TV follows suit. Email, ditto. Internet TV guide, right at your fingertips. One tap pizza delivery, why not?

Now compare this to any other similar technology out there and tell me that the Apple TV is unimportant.

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