Apple TV and the future

Wednesday’s “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll” Apple event is likely to be true to its name and focus exclusively on music—new iPods, a new version of iTunes, and enhancements to the iTunes Store. Just as likely is that Apple’s set-top media device, the Apple TV, will retain its hobby status and merit mention none. And that’s sensible. Apple needn’t muddy a perfectly fine iPod announcement with details of a new Apple TV strategy.

But such a new strategy needs to be talked about soon if Apple’s serious about planting its flag in the living room. Another year of “it’s a hobby” and incremental updates that don’t address the core weaknesses of the device should pretty well spell curtains for the Apple TV.

I’ve supported the Apple TV from its earliest days and continue to count it as a key (though occasionally flaky) component of my audio-visual life. But the notion of the Apple TV-as-iTunes-extension—one where the device exists largely as an avenue for playing and purchasing iTunes content—hasn’t worked out. And it hasn’t for a few very good reasons. They include:

Locked in If you want to obtain media for your Apple TV, the average user has just three places to turn—the iTunes Store, their local iTunes libraries, and YouTube. If you want to play your DVDs you either require the wherewithal to rip them or turn to a different device. Likewise, if you wish to watch Hulu or Netflix’s online content, it’s off to another device or you hack your Apple TV to use Boxee. Blu-ray? Ha. Live TV—recorded or otherwise? Ha and ha.

Steve Jobs famously claimed that people want to own their music. When it comes to video, people want to play any and all of it that they can lay their hands on. Allowing just a portion of that media to play doesn’t cut it if you want your device to dominate the living room.

Locked out The Apple TV, more than the iPhone or iPod, has always depended on the kindness of strangers—specifically the TV and movie industries. And those high up in those industries—having watched what happened to their cousins in the music business—aren’t about to allow Apple to turn the tables on them in similar fashion. The iTunes Store has a solid collection of TV shows but its movie offerings aren’t even a tenth as complete as what you find at the corner mom ‘n’ pop video store. I’m certain Apple would love to have a catalog that shames the local Blockbuster. I’m just as certain that the movie industry is happy with the way things are.

Jacked up And when you do find something you want to watch, it’s not cheap. With NetFlix subscriptions going for $9 a month and Redbox videos vended for just a buck, it’s a rough go for some people to justify paying $4 to rent a movie for a scant 24-hours (from the moment you first start playing) that doesn’t look as good on their HDTV as does that $1 DVD rental.

Apple gets a lot of credit for innovation. But often its best work comes not from making things from whole cloth but rather taking existing technology that works poorly and reshaping it into something wonderful. Think MP3 players and the iPod. The current Apple TV is not that wonderful something. It’s capable, but too limited given the other media options available to us.

What many have clamored for is the device that has the capabilities of a Mac mini media center, but without the accompanying complications. An Apple TV that plays and digitizes DVDs (and plays Blu-ray discs), plays and records high-definition TV, streams Web content including Hulu, Netflix, Rhapsody, Napster, Pandora, and Last.fm; provides access to iTunes libraries local and remote; and allows for rental and purchase from the iTunes Store as well as outlets such as Amazon.com. In short, the one-stop media box.

And, regrettably, that device is never, ever going to come from Apple (or anyone else, for that matter).

Not because Apple wouldn’t be interested in making such a thing, but because the kind of cooperation and good will necessary to pull it off simply doesn’t exist. Gather together the executives necessary to produce this one-stop box and there will be blood.

Assuming then that we can’t have the perfect device, perhaps we can hope that Apple provides us with something closer. It could certainly incorporate a disc player capable of playing DVDs and Blu-ray. If Apple’s willing to break down its self-imposed iTunes wall, it could probably work a deal with Netflix. (Barring that, open up your own video subscription service.) If it would unbar the USB port and allow third-parties to install software, an Elgato EyeTV-like device could be added without Apple having to go to the mat with TV executives. Rhapsody and Napster (and, perhaps, Pandora and Last.fm) aren’t likely to be invited as they’re certain to be seen as direct competitors to the iTunes Store. And, what the heck, include a simple controller and let the thing play games available from a special section of the App Store.

The result is a compromised device, but one possibly achievable in a world where everyone wants to own it all.

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