Wed 01 Sep
No one’s happier than I am that Apple hasn’t thrown in the towel with its living room efforts. After much neglect, the new Apple TV, announced today, is a step in the right direction: sleeker in size, more capable in content access, network savvier in its diskless approach to media, and — the clincher — more wallet-friendly at US$99. That’s a winning combination, I think.
On the other hand, this new generation of Apple TV doesn’t appear to do too much more that I can’t already do with the older Apple TV and the Netflix Instant Watch-capable Blu-Ray player that I currently have in my living room. In fact, it’s telling that it’s still called just “Apple TV” without some new suffix indicating that it’s a second generation product. For all intents and purposes, it’s the same as what I already have.
That’s fair. I’ve always thought the core Apple TV feature set makes for a device that can do well in the marketplace, and its new price point and other alterations give it a fighting chance.
However, when rumors of an Apple TV reboot first started gaining momentum, what I hoped for was that Apple would undertake a bigger challenge than just making it a more attractive device for consumers. Much in the same way that they fixed the mobile space with the iPhone, and much in the same way they’re trying to fix the problem of true consumer computing with the iPad, I hoped that they would also try to fix the living room. This is a challenge that I wrote about in a general way a year ago in a blog post called “The Living Room Problem,” but luckily for those reading now, I’m going to revisit those sentiments here.
As a consumer experience, the living room is something of a disaster: a sprawling, schizophrenic mess of rat king wires hanging off the back of inscrutable devices sending cryptic signals to one another under the auspices of an alphabet-soup of initialisms and branded nomenclature — HDMI, DVI, component video, Blu-Ray, progressive and interlaced resolutions, Dolby, DTS, etc. — and that’s not even mentioning the terminology that intersects with personal computing.
No one I know thinks this ecosystem is elegant, and only a few people I know really understand how to navigate it. It’s complex and bewildering, and the only way to become acclimated is to throw yourself into the thicket of technical manuals, message boards, customer service calls and afternoons spent in trial-and-error fiddling. So imagine how my child’s babysitter feels when she wants to watch TV after putting the baby to sleep: it’s so bad that she’s often actually has to read a book instead.
On the other hand, let’s say you’ve got figured out how to get an XBox 360 or a media PC hooked up to high-definition television. As far as mastering this collision of advanced technologies goes, you’re doing pretty good. But did you realize that you’re almost behind the curve already? Your HDMI linkups may soon be outdated by the coming HDbaseT standard and your Blu-Ray player (if you even bothered to upgrade to those discs) may one day be left behind by the forthcoming, even more capacious BDXL.
I’m trying to sound like I know what I’m talking about here but I really don’t, and that’s the problem. I’ve invested countless hours into jerry-rigging a reasonably usable home theater but I have to admit that I barely understand how to fix it when something goes wrong. Moreover, the technology keeps changing, and as it does, the problem keeps getting worse. Few enough people understand this stuff now, and I can only guess that even fewer will understand it in five year. .
The living room is a technological opportunity rife with potential. It commands so much attention from nearly every family in every first world country and could make a major technology powerhouse out of any brand, new or old, that can truly make it usable.
The problem is that every company out there that’s addressing this opportunity, from Sony to Samsung to even Apple, is actually trying to solve the wrong problem. None of them are really asking how they can fix the living room problem. Rather, they’re focusing on establishing their brand in the living room, positing completely unrealistic scenarios in which a consumer buys only, say, Samsung-branded components (e.g., its absurdly useless WiseLink protocol) without acknowledging the reality that the components of most home theaters make for a decidedly heterogeneous world.
As I wrote in the aforementioned blog post:
“…A rational, user-focused business model is still sorely missing. This is the free market at play, industrial competition in full effect: every device manufacturer, content creator and software publisher is competing to create the most commercially competitive subset of video entertainment or peripheral, but doing so in nearly complete isolation from one another.
“Fundamentally, they’re all incapable of getting on the same page and creating a coherent, consistent, transparent user experience for the teeming masses. In this current state of continual volatility in the business models driving home entertainment, there are so many market-driven, irreconcilable differences between all of the constituent parts of a home theater setup that a resolution to the mess seems discouragingly unobtainable. What’s needed is a consortium or a standards movement or an open source project, but one that spans across the many industries and players that are involved, and that can somehow resolve some of the biggest intellectual property challenges facing media today. Somehow. Design has done what it can for the time being; to get over this hump, it’s a business problem. And, as with almost all unresolved business problems, it’s the end users who suffer.”
I once asked a design consultant who had worked with a lot of companies in this arena, from technology manufacturers to cable providers, what their take on the living room problem was: did they think that we lacked the technology to create a superior user experience that real people can use, or was it that we lacked the will? He prevaricated, but in doing so he essentially gave me his answer: we lack the will. In my opinion, the new Apple TV is a nice product, but it demonstrates to me that Apple also lacks the will to fix the living room.