Looking back at the original Apple TV

Introduced alongside the iPhone, the first Apple TV seems retro now only because our attitudes about entertainment and ownership have shifted.

apple tv primary
Christopher Phin

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Apple is expected to introduce a new Apple TV on Wednesday, one with an app store and with some gaming chops. An Apple TV, in other words, that finally delivers the full-frontal assault on the modern living room that Apple seems to have been curiously reluctant to mount before now.

I picked up an original-generation Apple TV from eBay to remind myself of where this little hobby began, and it’s been salutary.

The Apple TV was introduced alongside the iPhone, and both were at the time doing the same thing in their respective industries. Neither was the first of its kind. Both were, for better or worse, quintessentially Apple approaches to the problems they set out to solve. And both were Apple’s attempt to enter, shape, and presumably ultimately dominate these new, emerging sub-markets in tech—since it could see that sticking as a PC maker would quickly lead to obsolescence and death. This was the moment when Apple changed from “Apple Computer” to “Apple Inc”, and both of these products, emblematic of that change, were a bet on the future.

Yet while any fool—with the exception of Steve Ballmer, of course—could see that the original iPhone represented a clear vision for this new class of device, and while you can clearly trace an unbroken line linking the first iPhone in 2007 to the iPhone 6 today and doubtless beyond to the new models that arrive this week, the Apple TV’s progress has been much more fitful, and its role and legacy much more muddled.

I never bought the Apple TV the first time round. I had a Mac mini with an Elgato TV tuner hooked up to my TV, and I happily sang along with the chorus of analysts and other morons whose familiar refrain about over-simplification and lack of power and flexibility is still reprised today every time Apple introduces something new.

Maybe I can cut myself some slack, though. The original incarnation of the Apple TV was a perplexing thing, in part because of the device itself but mostly because of the broader market context; judging it was hard. This was Apple declaring its intentions for the living room, but you could argue it produced a product to articulate them too early, before the technology surrounding the post-DVD, cord-cutting world had matured, and before our attitudes to media ownership and consumption had softened.

If you ignore the slightly archaic analogue connections on the back of the original Apple TV, and set aside how funny it seems now that we all bridled when we learned it required a widescreen TV (imagine!), it basically does the same job as the current model—that is, play movies, music, photos and more on your TV—and yet despite being the same age as the iPhone, as you set it up it seems to come from a completely different age. Here, for example, is its interface.

apple tv 01 Christopher Phin

Oh my. And then there’s the fact that it’s very definitely a peripheral to iTunes, basically an iPod that you have permanently connected to your TV. You link it to an iTunes Library with a passcode…

apple tv 02 Christopher Phin

…and then sync your movies, TV shows, music, photos, and podcasts to its internal storage.

apple tv 03 Christopher Phin

Internal storage! The model I have has a 160GB hard disk inside it, but it was originally available by default with 40GB. Today’s (well, yesterday’s) Apple TVs have 8GB of flash storage, there just to cache media rather than actually holding entire collections wholesale. This was how we consumed media in 2007; we stored it locally and played it from there. The Internet for most people was too slow for the kind of streaming we do today, and even local wireless networks would have struggled with 1080p video.

You essentially had to buy wholesale into the iTunes ecosystem too, but you weren’t even rewarded if you did—stuff you bought from the iTunes Music Store was below DVD resolution.

The hardware itself seems curiously archaic to modern eyes, too. The original Apple TV was basically a small Mac, complete with Intel processor, Nvidia graphics card and OS X 10.4.7, albeit a heavily tweaked version. There was nothing wrong with this, of course—though damn does it get hot when it’s running—and it was the obvious (shading to “only”) option Apple had at the time, but when today we have small, flash-based devices running lean embedded OSs, it has a curiously analog, steampunk vibe. Even the current Apple TV looks portly next to an HDMI stick from Roku or Amazon.

apple tv 04 Christopher Phin

For such a young device, I’m genuinely surprised by how old-fashioned the original Apple TV looks and feels as we await only its third major change, to some extent because of the hardware and software but more pertinently because of the of-the-era attitudes, business practices, and available technologies it embodies.

As more and more of us have embraced subscription services and catch-up TV, we seem to have stopped worrying about DVR functionality or live TV. It seems we don’t care if we have an episode of a show stored on a hard disk within the four walls of our homes if we can just stream it over the Internet. Hitherto, poor broadband speeds and the sluggish adoption and deep suspicion of new technologies by media companies meant that this wasn’t practical, but all most of us ever cared about was being able to watch the latest Mad Men or Gossip Girl, not really the mechanism by which we did.

The reason the Apple TV remained a hobby, I’ve started to think, is because Apple was basically marking time, waiting for the rest of the industry to get itself into a position where its vision for the platform could be realized without punishing friction—if, like me, you’re a Douglas Adams fan, think Magrathea. Plus, while I wrinkled my nose at the idea of locking myself into the iTunes Music Store in 2007, on those occasions today when I buy rather than stream music, movies or TV shows, it’s from there. Apple has ground me down.

Pick up an original iPhone—introduced, remember, at the same event—and while it’s clearly a generations-old device with some major omissions, notably an App Store, 3G, and independence from a PC, the basic recipe is there. It’s done. It’s set; Apple just had to iterate, and it did. The original Apple TV, though, seems to suggest a direction the company headed off in before zig-zagging away on a different bearing altogether. Now we get to see if Apple has settled on a destination. I can’t wait to watch.

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