Apple looks ahead with iTV

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In this very space a week ago, I wrote the following:

…what I need is for some way to get the files I’m buying off the iTunes Music Store from my iPod and on to my television set—quickly, easily, without having to jump through any third-party hoops. I don’t know what form such an offering would take—A set-top box? An AirPort Express-like streaming device? Something else entirely?—but I do know that, if executed with Apple’s standard level of care and precision, it will make my life that much more enjoyable.

So now we have Apple’s response: How’s about a set-top box that’s also an AirPort Express-like streaming device?

Essentially, that’s what Apple’s iTV prototype is—a sliver of a Mac mini that plugs into your television set and uses 802.11 wireless networking to pull movies, music, photo slideshows, and other multimedia from your Mac. For $299, you have what’s touted as a quick-and-easy way to get all those full-length movie downloads you’re certain to buy from the iTunes Store onto your flat-screen TV set.

Or, to be more accurate, you’ll have that quick-and-easy way one day , once the iTV actually begins shipping—which it’s slated to do sometime in the first three months of 2007.

For that reason, it’s hard to say with much certitude how well the product currently known as iTV will deliver what it promises. If you watch Steve Jobs demonstrating the product, it certainly seems like it’s a snap to set up and use. It’s got the requisite video connectors— HDMI, for connecting to those new-fangled high-definition TVs, as well as component video for older sets—and analog and optical audio ports that integrate iTV into your home theater/stereo configuration. “Whatever kind of set-up you’ve got, iTV works,” Jobs said during last week’s press event.

Well, hopefully . No one can really say for sure until they’ve laid hands on the device. For instance, I’ve got a TV that’s well into its second decade of faithful service, so I’ll be very interested to see how well iTV handles a piece of equipment that dates back to the early years of the Clinton administration. Also nagging my brain: What will performance be like as a movie streams from my Mac to the iTV to the TV set? Will it be totally continuous, or will it stutter and pause? And what if I decide to hop on my Web browser and head over to IMDB to confirm that, yes, that really is a youngish Billy Bob Thornton as the hot-headed faro player in Tombstone —is the added network traffic going to cause my movie to grind to a noticeable halt? These are the questions that will need to be answered four to six months from now, once iTV—shipping with an entirely new name—makes its debut.

So why announce it now? This is an unusual move for Apple, a company that goes to great lengths to make sure that the first time you hear about a new product is in that fraction of a second just after the news leaves Steve Jobs’ lips and just before the box arrives on retail shelves. What’s significant about iTV that requires Apple to tell us about several months in advance?

There are two reasons, near as I can figure, one practical and the other philosophical. The practical reason is that when you’re putting together a product that involves wirelessly streaming media, you’re going to need to get regulatory approval from the appropriate government bodies. That process is fairly public, meaning that anyone with enough time on his or her hands could dig up the relevant filings and scoop Apple on its own product announcement. Thus, Apple opted to scoop itself.

As for the philosophical reason, I think Steve Jobs anticipated that adding movie downloads to the iTunes Store would raise more questions than it answered, with the most common question being, “So I can watch these on my computer and my iPod and that’s it?” Pre-announcing iTV allows Apple to respond to that question—not completely, but enough for us to see that the company has some grander vision in mind. I dismissed the idea of an iTunes movie rental service back when that rumor was floating around for reasons far too varied to get into here, but one of my chief complaints was that I would rather own, not rent, my multimedia. And I’m far more inclined to own a digital version of a full-length movie if I know there’s some way to get it on my TV set in the works.

Apple clearly has more than movie downloads and iTV in mind—Jobs said at least twice during last week’s press event that he hoped the product announcements would give people “an idea of where we’re going.” And, as noted above, there are still plenty of questions to answer about the things that Apple has announced. Still, if last week’s product unveilings were intended to give us an idea of where Apple plans to take us, you have to like the initial direction the company has set.

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