Apple Blinks in the Living Room

AppleTVNo 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.

Oh Wire, Oh Wire Do We Have to Put up with This?

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.

Right: Sleeker, better, cheaper, but about as ambitious as before. The new Apple TV.

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. .

Opportunity Pings

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.

  1. I think Apple’s vision of a simpler living room is a 42″ display with a built-in Apple TV, and everyone’s content available through iTunes. And I guess a pair of rear speakers and a subwoofer would come with it too. But between content providers’ foot-dragging and the incumbency of cable, I don’t think it can happen anytime soon.

    As for previous attempts to simplify the living room:

    Cablecard would’ve removed one box that duplicates functionality built-in to the TV (so would not encrypting digital cable…), but cable companies sabotaged it.

    HDMI tried to reduce the number of cables you have by using the same cable for audio and video, but unless you don’t actually want surround sound you still need two of them. Plus it’s been really bad about revving the standard for minor things every couple years, obsoleting existing receivers. And manufacturers have been even worse about providing firmware updates to support new revs where possible. Not to mention the intentional sabotaging of component connections!

    About the only idea that’s actually worked is Harmony remotes but all too often they’re hindered by remote codes that depend on the device’s current state. Someone forcing manufacturers to have stateless codes, documenting them in an open database, and actual devices shipping with Harmony-like remotes would go a long way to simplifying the usage complexity. But all that won’t ever happen.

  2. You are so right about the Living Room Problem. But I want streaming Netflix. AppleTV here I come. I’ll get back to you about the cables.

  3. “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.”

    Read a BOOK?! A BOOK! Oh, the humanity! How can such a thing be allowed to happen in the 21st century?! etc.

  4. This is the first time I have ever thought you were totally off base. Maybe you have a phobia about dealing with your living room media center, but Apple’s come up with a perfectly reasonable, sensible, and well-priced solution with the right technology for what most consumers, including me, need. I’d already decided to give up cable/satellite and go with Netflix over my Wii/iPad anyway, and this gives me more and simpler options. The one thing that it lacks to really be the perfect device is a built in ASTC tuner.

  5. Adam: if it works for you then terrific. However, if you need to add a DVD or Blu-Ray player to the mix, or maybe you want to add a home theater system or add’l speakers of some kind, then I’d be curious to know if you still think the new Apple TV’s approach to the living room is comprehensive.

    As for your comment about the ASTC tuner — what the heck is that? I have no idea.

    Harry: I own a Harmony universal remote and I agree that it’s one of the less depressing parts of my setup, but it still feels very hacked-together.

    The Harmony line represents a pragmatist’s approach to fixing the living room problem: clean up after everyone else’s mess. It’s commendable but still falls short I think. This is partly because the Harmony software is a real kludge and not particularly elegant, and also because the hardware itself is more like a playback machine for sequences of remote control signals than a truly integrated control device.

    What I’d like to see is something more along Apple’s lines of forcing everyone to fix their own mess. Instead of trying to reconcile all of the different standards, if Apple builds an iOS app environment for the Apple TV that’s sufficiently compelling, other OEMs will write for that device. I guess it’s less pragmatic than it is idealistic, but as I said in my post, Apple managed to do it with phones and are in the process of doing it with consumer computing.

  6. The consolation is your baby sitter could read your iPad or watch MadMen on itunes or watch her friends video on youtube.
    Completely agree with you and the living room problem. We should not forget also the major cable conglomerate that obvioulsy dont wont to end up like the record companies, sidelined by Apple. Right now the TV networds are in lukewarm water trying to maintain the super profitable revenue stream and walk with the cable companies and their quasy local monopole ( I live in NJ and if i don’t like Comcast, what do I do?) and adventuring in the future of TV watching.
    Hopefully more network will sign up with Apple TV, But out of the 700 tv channels how many of them can feature on demand shows they can charge for when so many are syndicated on multiple networks without counting the re runs episodes?

    the advent of live broadcast on the web will ultimately will call for a complete rethinking of the cable TV business and i still believe apple can harness it but but i agree that Apple has to do a lot more.

  7. Khoi–you’re absolutely right! We’re currently researching how to dump FiOS TV, get streaming Netflix and play DVDs/CDs. The plan is to get a digital antennae. But how to get TNT? That station comes with cable/FiOS/satellite or via internet.

    More wires? Another device? UGH!

  8. Since my “living room” consists mostly of an old HD monitor / TV combo, a DVD player, and an HD decoder. I’m not sure I have much of a problem. Although I’ve looked at all kinds of various ideas for improvement: satellite, cable, a better TV, maybe a DVR. They’ve all left me confused .. and as a Deaf adult I find Netflix streamings lack of accessibility so infuriating that any “solution” just leaves me feeling cold that I can’t have this one element.

    Enter the Apple TV… depending on Accessibility (which obvious Netflix has no intention of fixing, perhaps others will) … I see a solution that involves an AppleTV and a newer television.

    And that’s it. No cable bill. No satellite bill. No hundred different components. Just two simple things.

    Sounds like a perfectly Apple solution!

  9. This problem had been around for a long time. I remember when my family got it’s first VCR (Yes, I’m that old). I asked, why does it have a tuner in it? We already had one in the Cable Box which made the one in the TV useless. At the time I compared it to our audio equipment. We had one tuner. The turntable and the cassette recorder didn’t need a tuner, too. On the TV side, every pice of equipment wants to rule the roost.

  10. I still hold out some remote hope that Microsoft (I know, I know) might come up with a really compelling living room offering. The XBox360 is a surprisingly useful little device — netflix streaming + video games + what look like slots for other services in the interface.

    Of course the interface is kind of painful, worse than FrontRow but better than what any cable/sat interface. But if there’s one thing Microsoft has shown it’s tops at, it’s abstracting away an incredible diversity of third party hardware and peripherals. The mess in the living room resembles the ever churning mess in the PC market. Apple has chosen to never go down that road of supporting third party main boxes, which is smart in other markets, but is a hindrance at the challenge you describe. So I think Microsoft actually has some advantages here.

    Not that I’m betting on them, given their seeming inability to move fast any more. But who knows — the XBox group has operated a bit differently from the rest of MSFT, historically. And lord knows it would be nice if there was one emerging computer device market Apple DIDN’T dominate.

  11. I’m in the same boat as you, having a v1 AppleTV and a BluRay player that streams Netflix.

    I think the AppleTV could have been a lot more revolutionary had they gone to iOS for the UI. Not only would it have given them an additional device for which to sell apps, but it would have also unified the UI.

    The only real obstacle I see to this is that iOS is built for touchscreen, but that could also be seen as an opportunity. They already have the remote software for iPhone and iPod Touch, it seems logical to offer a touch remote that links up with the AppleTV, or allow them to control the AppleTV with an existing iPhone/iPod Touch.

    I’m going to hold out a single hope that they will release the Netflix player for the v1 AppleTV through a software update, even though its probably wasted effort.

  12. The “living room problem” is indeed a real issue, but I think the way you’ve presented it isn’t fully reasoned. To compare the AppleTV to iPhone and declare it a lukewarm effort to fix the problem is to overlook the various differences between the problems those devices were trying to fix.

    The iPhone has done well specifically because of the disposable nature of the already established mobile market. Yes, people were dissatisfied by the previous selection of smartphones, but those (while perhaps not inexpensive) were easily replaced. The “living room problem” on the other hand is absolutely littered with large, expensive components that nobody wants to write off, and nobody wants to go to the trouble of removing from the entertainment center.

    Yesterday, with the release of the new AppleTV, I had a moment of delight at the AirPlay and Netflix stuff, and then a couple hours of uncertainty related to how exactly I’m gonna integrate such a thing into my current Mac mini media center. The last thing I need is yet another box, and yet another input setting on my TV.

    Awhile later, I realized that I would gladly pay $99 for an upgrade that makes Front Row on my mini do all the things the new AppleTV does. But even then I would still need to explain to my girlfriend or my sister just how to invoke Front Row if they want to use the media center. I’d rather just have them switch the TV/stereo over to “AppleTV” if they want to access Netflix or the iTunes library.

    And lastly, it may not be vastly more awesome than the former AppleTV, but it IS about 60% cheaper. I think that’s the big take-away: at $99, this is a device that people will actually adopt in droves. And once the masses have adopted, that’s when Apple can start really investing in innovation.

    There is no magic wand that Apple can wave that’ll solve whatever problem you happen to have in your living room, while also protecting most of the investments you’ve already made. Apple do often just choose to disregard those investments and suggest that you start fresh with their brand new all-in-one gizmo, but how do you do that when we’re talking about such disparate components to integrate? One way or another, you’re always going to have issues in the living room as long as you care about high-quality AV from multiple sources, and are even a little picky about what those sources are.

  13. Khoi-

    I have a separate DVD player, not blu-ray, and now a PC hooked up so I can watch Hulu content. An ASTC tuner gets free over-the-air digital TV channels.

    I get the sense that you just want a unit you can drop in your living room that does everything for you all at once. That does not exist yet. Maybe Apple *will* come up with that someday soon, but for now, you’re correct- there are too many competing technologies to be able to come up with one neat solution.

    For me, however, and I think for a lot of the populace, especially after reading the comments, Apple’s come up with something that will serve quite nicely.

    I think perhaps you were hoping to be wowed more, and this wasn’t your Apple Event for that.

  14. @Adam Gillitt

    Actually, an HTPC properly equipped can do it all.
    – Hulu
    – Netflix
    – ITMS Rentals
    – Youtube
    – BluRay/DVD
    – ATSC via Tuner Card, FM
    – PVR/DVR

    What this option lacks is the elegance of an Apple UI, and the sexyness of an apple design.

  15. @Khoi — I’m a fellow long-time contemplator of both and “The Living Room Problem”… certainly feeling you on this!

    I agree with your observation that you can almost always count on any media company of size to embrace as many closed standards / distribution models as they can get away with. It’s a strategy of “Deliberate Balkanization” to try and assert control over our “content” and the devices that play it (and as you rightly point out — even the cables in between are part of the skirmishing!).

    Frankly, I think this will prove to be an enduring tech truth with a longer shelf-life than even Moore’s Law. We should give it a name already. (My vote is for “Balki’s Law” in honor of the 1980’s sitcom “Perfect Strangers”)

    Clearly it’s the thinking that’s broken here, not the technology.

    So if the way forward is to change the thinking of the principals, how can we do that most effectively? I’m not being rhetorical here: I really wonder what form of suasion people think could actually bring these companies — and the people who run them — under the “Openness” tent. Because until we figure that one out, guys like you and I are going to be begging the patience of our loved ones while we have to unplug or reboot something just to watch a movie.

    And more broadly, the “broken thinking” — this practice of deliberately frustrating customers to build or maintain market share — will become even more entrenched in the minds of businesspeople. You name the industryЁ mobile phones, insurance, credit cardsЁ the bad idea has become pervasive. If someone could develop a methodology to draw industry away from the notion that this is “good business”, we’d finally be closer to solving “The Living Room Problem” –and they’d certainly get my vote for a Nobel Prize in either Peace or Economics!**

    (** Note: I don’t actually have a vote.)

  16. My home theater has been a monitor hooked to my Mac mini (vintage 2006) for the last few years. It’s my DVD player, my television (EyeTV), my Hulu, my Netflix, iTunes rentals, Youtube, etc.

    It’s a 23″ monitor — not huge, but I don’t care. It’s responsive and aggregates all my stuff. It has a spiffy Apple interface, if I decide to go FrontRow — but I just use AirMouse on my iPod touch from the couch to control most things. Works great. Cheap. Sum for all components comes in under $1200, and has worked very well for years.

    The babysitter has no troubles — I sign her into a guest account before I go, and she watches Hulu and DVDs.

    This is also the primary family computer. Further bonus.

    I’m with Vargo — HTPCs are the way to go. Just don’t make them separate from your primary home machine. 🙂

  17. I have a PC hooked up to my TV with Windows Media Center controlling everything (using a harmony remote) and while it completely does everything I want (cable DVR, Hulu, Netflix, Blu-ray, internet TV) it literally takes a full day of training for anyone to understand.

    My girlfriend and I completely understand it and take full advantage of it, but when I had a friend over recently, it was a disaster. He had woken up before me and tried to watch TV. When I woke up, the TV was set to the wrong input, the media center was off, and the remote was set to the wrong device. This is not an exaggeration and my friend is not computer illiterate.

    If apple were to fix this, I’d be amazed. I think a good start would be to give appletv iOS, though. However, to put it over the edge, it would have to have DVR capabilities. Or at least easy access to all of my favorite shows — not just the ones on network TV.

  18. Although it’s not very tempting at the moment (Apple seem to gave forgotten about the UK when it comes to TV show rentals, plus I can already watch movies by plugging my iPhone into the TV, thanks very much), it does look like the AppleTV could become something quite special. It’s no coincidence that they’ve been developing an iOS-based under-the-TV box and the iOS gamecentre thing at the same time. Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo: watch this space.

  19. I have to say I’m pretty happy with my setup.

    Now it helps that I’m one of the % that don’t really think HD is such a big deal. I’m perfectly happy watching whatever channel I’m on.

    Personally I got my Xbox360 working as a media centre some time ago: streaming content from my Mac and now a NAS drive. Sure I don’t get the fancy menus or the DVD Box art but what do I care? It works, and it’s fast.

    Plus the 360 already has Rentals, and so does my cable box. Not that I do much of either.

    Would I consider an ATV for a second TV if I had one? Sure, you can’t get a 360 for $99.

  20. Thank you, Khoi. Your reviews of Apple products are always insightful. I hope you could soon review the new MacBook Pro 15″, which introduces a new display option (1680×1050). As a designer, I’m tempted by the higher resolution, but then I spend many hours reading and writing text on screen and if fonts are too small I will get a headache. So the standard 1440×900 resolution sounds as a bet safe…

  21. The babysitter – houseguest problem prompted me to work through my remote control problem. The goal: ONE key press to select a device.

    The key is a remote that allows you to program both macros and discrete codes. Discrete codes allow you to select an input on your tv and / or stereo directly, instead of toggling through them.

    My remote is labeled with a key: Press 1 for cable, 2 for Apple TV, 3 for DVD. When you press one of those numbers the tv and stereo select the right input and the remote is left in a state ready to control that device. No toggling. ONE key press to switch between devices.

    The remote itself was $25.

  22. I think you meant capitulated, not prevaricated.

    I don’t think Apple blinked. The big announcement is not a new Apple TV, it’s AirPlay.

    There are two living room problems. The first is how distributors (e.g. cable companies) control access to content. The Web is gradually eroding that control, and in time will win. Apple and Netflix have already bet on that.

    The second problem is managing the content once you have it. Apple is betting on HTTP live streaming over WiFi. I think this is going to be huge.

  23. Ben: I did in fact mean “prevaricated” but perhaps I was unclear in the way I recounted the anecdote. What I meant was:

    “He prevaricated — hesitated, demurred, danced around the answer — but in doing so he essentially gave me his answer…”

  24. Everyone is talking about how their ultimate media centre uses bluray.

    The reason Apple have not adopted it yet, similarly to Microsoft’s Gaming department (Though I am sure that’s also because they still do not want to admit defeat somewhat) is because they believe it as an important stage as Zip disks (Remember them?)

    They believe that they Direct Downloads are the future. I love having tactile disks but I do imagine that this is the future personally. 🙂

  25. Zach: Actually, NO ONE is talking about how their ultimate media center uses Blu-Ray, at least not here. I merely mentioned it as one component among many that users must reconcile in the living room today. It’s pretty obvious to even many Blu-Ray owners that the format won’t last very long as a viable medium.

  26. I fully realize that direct download is the future, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying Blu-Ray in the present.

    So, at least for the time being, it IS part of my ultimate media center.

  27. What you’re asking for makes perfect sense coming from a web developer’s perspective. Haven’t we been asking for this ability from browser manufacturers for over a decade? The most recent browser revisions to “A-list” browsers are finally living up to standards-based design allowing our media to be delivered in a consistent way, but this hasn’t really come via the W3C, although their work is certainly commendable. Perhaps an audio/video equivalent of WHATWG could help?

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