Mon 20 Oct
Here’s what it’s like trying to describe what the Apple TV is to someone who has no idea. Starting first with one simple, brief sentence: It’s a set-top box that hooks up to your television and lets you play all kinds of Internet video as well as stuff from your computer.
The problem is, most people don’t know exactly what you mean when you say “Internet video.” So they always have to ask: You mean YouTube? Yes, definitely. How about stuff from sites like Hulu? Um, no, not easily. Well how about movies and TV shows you can rent from iTunes? Yes, not only that but BitTorrent video, too. What’s BitTorrent? Um, stuff you stole, basically. It also displays your digital photos, too, straight from your iPhoto library. And it features music-sharing via AirTunes, which lets you hear music from your iTunes music library on your home theater setup. Oh so it’s probably a digital video recorder too, right? Um, no, it’s not. Well, it kinda sorta sounds like a media PC, so can I play a DVD or Blu-Ray discs? Sorry, no, not that either.
So basically, in spite of its elegant, compact industrial design (the Apple TV has the look of something extremely elegant and succinct) this product is a freakin’ mystery to most people. But, having owned one now for about three months, let me tell you: it’s a winner. I had little idea what I was really getting into when I bought it, but now I’m a huge, huge fan of my Apple TV. In one respect or another, it’s in constant use in my home.
That ineffable quality, though, is a huge hurdle to overcome — it’s very difficult for products to succeed when people don’t understand what the heck they are. In fact, it’s a challenge that’s not too dissimilar, in my view, from the uphill battle that TiVo once had to overcome in establishing itself. A decade ago, it was actually quite hard to explain what a TiVo was or what it did; now most of us understand almost implicitly, as a generic verb, even. Regardless of whether someone owns a TiVo or a generic DVR, we all get it when someone says, “Don’t forget to TiVo that for me.”
The question, I guess, is whether it’s realistic to expect the Apple TV to clear that hurdle of understandability the same way that TiVo did. It seems highly unlikely. As a way of consuming media, TiVo always had a certain inevitability to it; when most of us used TiVo for the first time, I think we all knew instinctively that this was the future of television consumption. On the other hand, the passel of features stuffed into the Apple TV, while admittedly suggesting a modicum of inevitability, seems too fractured and incoherent to really declare itself as the future. While awesome in aggregate, the Apple TV has more of the feeling of an interim step towards something more coherent and still to come.
Why go that road, though? Why should Apple try and explain all of these features to users? My advice is just to make the Apple TV a kind of “TiVo-plus.” That is, add the DVR capabilities that I bet a majority of Apple TV users (including me) want anyway, and layer on all of these other wonderful but not easily comprehended features on top of it. Then you have something that people understand — always a good first step in making a sale — and they’ll think of the Internet video, home photos, music streaming, YouTube, and everything else the Apple TV does as bonuses to be appreciated after the sale.
One more complaint about Apple TV: it needs an ex-girlfriend filter, possibly powered by face-recognition technology. While idling, the Apple TV is more often than not running a slideshow from my iTunes library, a soothing visual tour of the past several years of my life as recorded by digital photography. Soothing except for the fact that a good number of those photos feature my ex-girlfriend — irrespective of how one’s relationship might have ended, it’s not usually a great thing to see one’s ex so centrally in the living room. Especially if you’re seeing someone new. That’s something I think anyone can understand.