While the world waits for the fabled digital unicorn that is the Apple television set long predicted by some Wall Street analysts, there’s already a lot to be learned from the current version of Apple’s “hobby.” The Apple TV can show us where the company might go in the future and the role of the TV screen as part of the connected consumer personal cloud experience.
When the Apple TV was first introduced in 2006, some folks wondered what its impact would be, given that there were already a number of devices with similar functions on the market. Apple didn’t invent this category of connected TV devices, but it did focus on four areas that makes what the company has done stand out among other players on the market.
Ownership of the network: You’ve heard me rant about this before, but the home network is a mess. Once you talk about moving beyond the basic utilitarian function of sharing an Internet connection, things break down pretty quickly. That’s why it’s important that Apple has taken ownership of the home network. You don’t need an Airport Extreme to make things work. If you’re comfortable going it alone, that’s fine. Apple, however, does offer a complete end-to-end solution which it will support, taking ownership of network issues that might result. I can’t downplay how important this is: Consumers can buy knowing there’s a script they can adhere to and make stuff work. When it comes to streaming high-definition content from the Internet and around the house, that’s the difference between enjoying content and troubleshooting DHCP conflicts.
Be true to the UI: There are two different experiences vying for users’ attention—the 2-foot experience of the mouse and PC and the 10-foot experience for consuming content in the living room. Apple TV understands the difference. Sure, you can hook up a Mac mini to your TV (or any other PC for that matter), but there’s still a disconnect in the experience. PCs were meant to be used with a mouse and keyboard, and PC interfaces were designed to be used close up (the 2-foot experience) and not from across the room (the 10-foot one). It’s far more seamless for consumers to let the PC stay where it is and be used to create content, purchase new content, and overall manage that content (along with other traditional PC tasks best handled in the traditional manner), while using the 10-foot UI for its best purpose—namely consuming content from that PC or even more likely these days, directly from a personal cloud service such as iTunes Match or Netflix.
Keeping things in Sync across devices and services: Control sync, control the world. One reason why Apple TV works well is that I can immediately access all my content whether it’s in the cloud or on a locally connected PC or even streamed from an iOS device through AirPlay. It’s all of the content I want, at my fingertips.
Attention to detail: When it comes to consumer electronics, success or failure can often be measured in millimeters, both literally and figuratively. This is where Apple TV shines. Plug an Apple TV into an HDMI port on your TV, plug it into the wall, and connect to your home network. That’s it. The small size of the current Apple TV shows once again that it’s just as important what you leave out as to what you put into a given device that makes it a success.
Despite all this, Apple TV remains in “hobby” status (although Apple has sold several million of these devices, which shows there is definitely a market and a demand, if not an overwhelming one at the moment). I suspect what we are seeing today is only the beginning. There’s already some pretty impressive integration between iOS apps and Apple TV for both games like Real Racing 2 and Sky Gamblers. Expect to see more of that in the future.
Content and services such as Hulu that don’t exist natively on Apple TV are now supported by iOS apps that work seamlessly with Apple TV. There are more ways Apple can extend this integration and I fully expect to see more of this story told this year.
Whether Apple does or doesn’t build a television set is immaterial. What matters is the content, services and applications that Apple can deliver to the TV screen experience. That’s an area where the company is already delivering and differentiating right now..
[Michael Gartenberg is an analyst and long-time Mac user who covers the world of the interconnected consumer for Gartner. The opinions expressed are his own.]