Is Apple TV a Hobby or Is It The Future?

Honesty time here. I have mixed feelings about Apple TV.

On the one hand, it has enormous potential. I love the idea that a little media appliance can turn my high-definition tv into the center of my digital world. I love the idea that photos and music as well as TV shows, movies and even web content may all reside in different places but they will all come together for me at the click of a button. If you play around with an Apple TV for just a few minutes, it’s easy to see that this could be the start of something seriously cool, a bridge between the isolated worlds of the living room, the home office and the internet.

And yet despite all of its promise, Apple TV has been an underachiever…a fact that even Apple reluctantly acknowledges. They describe it as a “hobby” and a chance to “dip their toes in the water” and unfortunately the product often feels that way, cautious and oddly noncommittal. It pleases but never risks offending. It’s good but not “insanely great” and that I believe, was intentional.

The tremendous success of the iTunes Music Store created an industry-wide backlash as record labels who once turned to Apple for help combating piracy started worrying about the tremendous influence that Apple exerted over digital distribution. Media executives, worried that Apple wanted to dominate the video market in a similar manner have been cautious in licensing their assets and have been, i believe, on the lookout for any sign that Apple is planning an entertainment coup d’ etat. After all, Apple was the company that once flew a pirate flag over its own corporate headquarters. It was the company that told people to “rip. mix. burn” and urged them to “think different”. It’s the kind of company that still makes media executives nervous.
All this brings me back once again to Apple TV, a product carefully designed to test the digital waters without alarming or offending potential media partners. It’s not surprising that consumers, hoping for a revolutionary next-gen media server were disappointed that Apple didn’t swing for the fences. Fortunately, there are signs that Apple TV is not the perennial underachiever its been made out to be and that in fact, Apple may be ready to turn this “hobby” into something far more interesting.

The Evolution of Apple TV

Consider the evolutionary nature of Apple TV. The first version was noticeably underpowered with modest tech specs and a tiny hard drive that practically screamed “look how small I am! You can’t store much on me! I’m not a copyright infringement device!”. Then came an updated version with slightly better specs, a slightly larger hard drive and most importantly, the ability to interact with the iTunes store without the assistance of a tethered computer. Very quietly and without much fanfare, it had became a stand-alone media server.

In the last couple of weeks, news has leaked that Apple has applied for patents on a wireless pointing device similar to that of a nintendo wii. Could this imply that Apple wants a new interface that requires something more robust than a simple 6 button remote to control? Last week, Blockbuster announced a partnership with TiVo to deliver streaming moves to subscribers, augmenting an already existing deal TiVo has with netflix. Does this mean that the market is finally ready to embrace a digital distribution model? Speculation abounds… but one thing is certain and that is that sales of Apple TV are increasing. In January of this year, Tim Cook, interim Apple CEO mentioned that Apple TV sales had risen 300% over the previous year. He also acknowledged that movie rentals were an area of interest moving forward.

I believe we will soon witness the birth of the real Apple TV, the one that Apple wanted to sell, but didn’t. I believe Apple understood that the release of a no-compromise media server with tons of storage and lots of ways to sideload or scrape digital content would frighten off potential partners and send the message that Apple was willing to turn a blind eye to copyright infringement. Instead, Apple has played the long hand in a bid to slowly evolve the hardware while it builds a coalition of partners and waits for the market to mature to the point where such alliances are welcomed.