Apple unveiled its new iPod lineup today, and Steve’s “one more thing” was a long-awaited refresh of Apple TV. while quite a few people seem to be excited about this tiny, sleek new incarnation of Apple TV, personally, i think it’s kind of a dud, for a few reasons.
a lot of rumors hit the price-point ($99), but it is not an iOS device, at least in any recognizable form. this means you still have most of the same options of media to choose from as with the last version. one addition would be Netflix, but as a menu item, not an app. the Apple TV update comes hand in hand with a business model update, namely cheaper HD rentals and, for the first time, TV rentals. some people seem really excited about this. i could be wrong about this, but here’s my initial thoughts about it.
let’s go back to the iPad.
among my friends, i’ve achieved “fanboy” status over the last year for being so pro-iPad, which is fine. while i don’t really see myself that way, i do like most things Apple. i do own several Apple products. i’m certainly more than a casual Apple customer. but for what it’s worth, i was mainly excited about the iPad because of what it was going to bring to my toolkit as a filmmaker. my iPhone 3G had been a huge boon to my on-set experience as an AD and director on some recent films, and I was dying for the processing power and the screen real estate of an Apple tablet. i wanted something more iMac-ish than iPhone-ish, though, and the keynote about the iPad was pretty lackluster, at least until they hit the price point. i knew i’d get one; i’d already booked a workshop at Biola Media Conference and wanted to have one in hand. and i could see that it would eventually change the computing game, though it might be a little farther down the road than i’d hoped. still, i really underestimated how much i’d be using it and loving it.
and the LAST thing i thought i would use it for is watching video. Steve kept talking about TV and the iTunes store and HD movies and HTML5 video. i rolled my eyes as he went on during the Keynote. as much as i despise Flash, let’s face it: most of the video on the Internet is flash. it wouldn’t be the media device Steve was touting it to be without all that video. sorry, Steve.
then, in just a few weeks between the unveiling of the iPad and it’s appearance on the shelf, dozens of major video sites prepared HTML5 versions of video. the night before the iPad appeared in customer’s hands, the Netflix and ABC apps appeared with little to no warning in the app store. TED, ABC, Netflix, YouTube… nearly all the video i watched online would be accessible from my iPad. even now, hulu plus brings most of the offerings of its online counterpart to the smaller, more portable screen of my favorite device. i probably run between 1-5 hours of video on my iPad on any given day, mostly from Netflix and hulu plus. people like me, who bought the iPad for its many uses, were pleasantly surprised by the amount of video one can watch on it.
still, though… i’m not buying movies or TV shows in iTunes. they’re just too expensive. i’m broke. i realize this isn’t an issue for everyone else, but it’s a big one for me. as a broke filmmaker (i.e., someone who desperately wants to watch a lot of movies), i go for volume per dollar over picture/sound quality or ad-free. sure, all things being equal, i’d rather watch all of Season 6 of House in HD. but if it’s between seeing it on hulu and paying $24, i’ll not mind the mid-range quality and a few ads. i could easily spend $30+/mo in $.99 rentals, not to mention movies. if i’m going to do that, i might as well get cable again. for movies, i’ve stopped buying DVDs, and won’t invest in Blu-Ray, but haven’t started purchasing iTunes movies yet. i just don’t have the money. besides, they’re not even 1080 yet. still just 720. buying/renting stuff with iTunes just still doesn’t seem practical to me yet, given all the other options out there.
anyway, the overall point is… my iPad became a media consumption device for me ONLY because there is a wide variety of media and payment models from which to choose, and only because i already owned it, for its many other uses.
this is the central problem of Apple TV, by Steve Jobs’ own admission*, and why Apple TV, even after today, remains a hobby. at $99, some will add it to their entertainment system, but it’s not going to replace it yet. i believe, other than a little bump because of the price point, this Apple TV won’t fare much better than its predecessor. unlike the iPad, there is no delay between its announcing and its launch. we will likely not see any surprise hulu plus addition to the UI the night before it hits the shelves. also unlike the iPad, it has no other uses. for instance, Steve mentioned in today’s keynote that the iPod Touch was the #1 portable gaming device**… not really, Steve. people are playing games on their Touch, but i suspect few are buying a Touch to play games. its success as a gaming platform is incidental. if they released an iPod Touch that only ran games, it’d do worse than the Pippin.* – i highly recommend watching this 4-minute clip of Jobs at D8 talking about Apple TV. in fact, his entire D8 appearance is worth watching. ** – update from TUAW: http://bit.ly/c4937c
Apple cracked the music code by allowing people to buy a single song from an album of otherwise unlistenable songs, something people buying CDs had been saying for years… “if only i could just buy this one song…” i’ve heard less people say, “if only i could pay for this one show…” now, i HAVE heard people say, “if only i could pay for this one channel…” but even then, they’re looking at their $50 cable bill and the 250 channels they get and figuring, “hey, that’s $5/channel/month!” which doesn’t work out to $.99 an episode. at $.99 an episode, i only get two weeks of Bones, House, and Lie to Me before i’m over that $5/mo quota. the math may not be fair, but it’s what people do in their heads. $.99 for one song of 15 from an album that costs $15 makes sense. with TV, however, compared to subscriptions, $.99 STILL won’t be cheap enough for most consumers. and you still have to add a $99 box.
this is a problem that’s affecting the whole film and television industry in their move to digital and mobile. there isn’t a television network or film distributer on this planet that doesn’t want to put their shows and movies in your pocket, no matter what James Cameron’s opinion about it is. but what’s the model? there’s a lot of similarities to the music industry, but as the journalism and publishing industries are finding out, it’s not the same. a new economy has to emerge for it. $5 HD rentals do not accommodate $90 million slacker fantasies. the great TV shows get lots of ad money. people want rid of ads, but they also only want to pay a dollar or less for an episode of TV. unless some drastic changes come to the film and television industries in the form of union dissolution or independent distributors suddenly blowing up and taking over the big dogs, things aren’t going to drastically change in the next year or so. again, the problem is not the tech. it’s the “go-to-market strategy,” as Jobs says. new tech tickles our gear lust, but the new Apple TV just really doesn’t offer anything new.
the future for Apple TV
surely, they see the potential in making Apple TV an iOS device. a $200 box that runs Netflix, hulu, the Internet, is a gaming system, can be used to sample and purchase content, includes FaceTime, GameCenter… it’s practically a small adjustment (both in UI and in form factor) from an 8GB iPod Touch (don’t need storage space if streaming/AirPlaying content). i think that would sell much better than what they debuted today, being more useful to more people. but then again i’d have designed the iPad differently, and i think they did it right. i’ve not spent years and millions in R&D, and they’ve sold over 3 million of them, so… i guess we’ll see…
the new Apple TV is pretty. the innovation of AirPlay is pretty neat. but i’m still going to make my next computer a Mac mini, and run something like Plex. then if i can ever afford an actual television, i’ll have a nice living room setup when i’m home, and an always on connection to my home server when i’m not. Apple may very well crack the TV/film distribution code, but they haven’t done it yet.