AppleTV — the missed opportunity

Note: we seem to be having a bit of a problem displaying the Twitter feed on the site. If you want to read my commentary on the event as it happened, it's all here.

Steve Jobs said something very insightful when introducing the second-generation AppleTV: no-one has nailed it yet. He's right — none of the devices designed to sit in your living room and handle your content has found the sweet spot of functionality, ease of use and elegant design that would make digital media truly homeworthy.

That was about the last thing he said that I agreed with.

The AppleTV, as it used to be, was a pretty good attempt. Link it to your iTunes library, register it with iTunes, and you can bring all that digital content right into your lounge room where you want it to be. Brilliant. But it was kind of complicated to do certain things with it, and some aspects were downright baffling.

Take the syncing business. You could sync your content between your computer and your AppleTV — which involved actually copying files over so they were resident on the AppleTV's hard drive — or you could stream them from your iTunes library over a wireless network, so everything stayed on your computer. Which was better for what types of content? Hard to know. The device gave little guidance.

The revised AppleTV wisely does away with that. Your content stays on your computer now, none of it is copied over to the AppleTV. It streams wirelessly. Simple. Done. Great.

Oh, hang on. Doesn't that mean that I've got to have my computer on whenever I want to watch something? Why yes, yes it does. And doesn't that mean if I have any kind of network problem that the thing is effectively a $A129 cube of plastic? Why yes, yes it does.

Some people have fantastic 802.11n wireless networks that simply never fail and never get choked up because someone is Skyping and someone else is Warcrafting while you wish you were Simpsonsing if only it didn't stop to buffer every few seconds. Some people leave their computers on all the time day and night. and have enough computers in the house that someone can be Skyping and someone else can be Warcrafting and ot won't rob the computer that contains the iTunes library of any precious clock cycles.

Most of us don't.

For most of us, having some content on the AppleTV means that the thing is usable, even if the network and other computers in the house are down. That's what most consumer electronics are like: they don't need a whole bunch of other things to be silently working in the background to function.

Nonetheless, a choice has been made for the sake of simplicity in the interface and reduced cost of manufacture, and it certainly has its merits.

Of course at one point in his presentation Jobs said customers had told him they didn't want to involve a computer in the whole process, but the computer just became more essential than it ever was before. Way to give the customers what they want, Steve.

Speaking of giving the customers what they want, when did they tell you they don't want to buy TV shows? I get that some people might have said they'd like to rent, but not having the option to buy is a huge step backwards and utterly ignores the market.

People collect TV shows. Check the sales of TV shows on DVD and you can see that quite easily. Back in the VHS days people didn't so much, but higher quality and smaller space requirements meant that people bought DVDs and collected them, and TV shows in particular. I have a number of shelves crammed with DVDs of TV shows.

I also have a hard drive that contains every episode to date of House, Criminal Minds, Dora The Explorer, Castle and a bunch of others (I collected the first eight seasons of Scrubs, and one episode of season nine — ick). No matter how many episodes, seasons or shows I buy, the hard drive takes up the same amount of space on the desk. When it fills, I will buy a new hard drive that will hold more and quite likely take up even less space.

Do I watch them repeatedly? Absolutely yes I do. The most trotted-out one is of course Dora, as my kids seem to have an infinite capacity for watching the same thing over and over. If I had to rent each episode each time the kids wanted to watch it, well, I wouldn't.

And a lot of these shows are in HD. I have seriously considered buying HD seasons of shows I already own on DVD, just so I can get rid of the discs and free up some shelf space. It is so much better to be able to pick an episode on my iPhone and watch it than to try to remember which disc contained the episode I wanted to watch and grab it off the shelf.

Logically, it would seem to me, TV shows are a thing people want to buy from iTunes. Maybe the numbers don't support that, but I'd like the choice to be there.

Speaking of choice, Jobs said that only a couple of the networks had signed on to the whole renting TV shows thing. If buying is no longer available and most of the suppliers won't let you rent, doesn't that mean the iTunes Store, as accessed on AppleTV, just lost a significant proportion of its content?

Why yes, yes it does.

What I wanted from a revised Apple TV was more, not less. I wanted a bigger hard drive, preferably an e xpandable one (Seagate's GoFlex Home HD is a good example of the principle). I wanted a TV tuner, perhaps several, and maybe even the ability to decode (with permission and appropriate payment) cable TV services and an electronic program guide. I like my Foxtel iQ2 and I like my AppleTV, and I wish they were one box and I only needed one remote.

I disagree with those who say the AppleTV needed a Blu-ray Disc drive. It's addressing an entirely different paradigm (though Sony's Playstation 3 combines the media centre and Blu-ray Disc functions reasonably well). For the sake of everything in one box maybe, but there aren't clear advantages beyond that — other companies make perfectly good Blu-ray Disc players and Apple doesn't need to wade into that area.

What I really would have liked though is a reset button or a power switch. Contrary to what Steve Jobs may believe, the AppleTV crashes sometimes. It freezes and needs to be restarted. You can do this with the remote control if the freeze isn't so bad that it ignores the remote and if you haven't become so accustomed to using your iPhone as a remote that you have no idea where the actual AppleTV remote went. When it's frozen the AppleTV does not connect with the iPhone app.

You have to unplug it and plug it back in again. Clumsy, awkward and really irritating. In my case it means the powerboard with the AppleTV plugged into it is sitting next to the TV cabinet where I can get to it easily rather than behind the cabinet where I wouldn't see it and my kids would be less tempted to play with it.

In order to satisfy Jobs's "no buttons whatsoever" aesthetic, the AppleTV is unnecessarily cluttering up my living room.

So that was what I was hoping for: a more powerful, more fully-featured and fully-rounded media centre that filled in the gaps in what the current product can do. What I got was a significantly reduced and less capable one. It's smaller and cheaper and looks cool, but everything beyond that is a step backwards from the current version.

Apple had the opportunity. It is one of very few companies with credibility in consumer electronics and computing. It has the design skills to make a device that will fit in people's living rather than working decor, and with iTunes it is uniquely placed to produce the digital-media nirvana we all wish existed. It came very close with the AppleTV, and the path to getting closer was clear.

Instead it's walked away from that. It's made an AppleTV that is even more of a hobby — a toy — than it had been previously.

Maybe it will rethink this, and produce another model that actually fulfils the enormous promise of the AppleTV. I can certainly keep hoping.

I just hope it doesn't take four years.

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