When It Comes To Media Devices, Being First Never Means Being Best

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Our good buddy Farhad Manjoo writes over at Slate that he believes Microsoft has already beaten Apple at the living room game. Why buy an Apple TV – either in its current form or in some sort of Siri-powered large-screen LCD form (which we’ll call ATV) – when your Xbox 360 does everything you want it to right now.

Sadly, he’s wrong. While Microsoft has improved their offering considerably and while voice commands are fun, there is still no compelling reason to buy an Xbox just for its streaming capabilities, nor is there any compelling reason to buy any one streaming system over any other. As they say, all set-top boxes make users unhappy in their own way.

I tend to agree that the console is one of the “set top boxes” of the future. I would pay big money if the cable and satellite providers stopped making DVRs and instead asked Microsoft or Apple to make something for them. However, I don’t think Microsoft will win in this case. They know how to make a great product, but they rarely stick it on the presentation.

Even Manjoo exhibits some skepticism:

Given its price advantage and a head start in the market, Microsoft’s TV strategy will be difficult for Apple to beat. But there is still one path for Apple: corral all of the world’s movies and TV shows. The Xbox is wonderful because it’s an effective aggregator, pulling the Web’s competing video services into a single, simple interface. But that’s not perfect, because you still have to choose between Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, Comcast, HBO, et al. What if you don’t want to spend the time and money deciding which of these services is right for you? What if you just want whatever you want, when you want it, on a single device that doesn’t ask you to belong to other paid plans? If Apple can deliver that—if it can give me Mad Men, Tower Heist, Bergman’s back catalog, Seinfeld reruns, and sports on a single box—well, then I may have to stand in line.

But this point – that the ATV must be able to supply all content immediately, if not sooner – is quite important. I don’t need Hulu, Netflix, a DVR, and individual apps to view YouTube channels. I want one central place, a repository that either makes it hard for me to see where the content is coming from or, better yet, holds all that content without having to hop from app to app to get this program or that movie. This sort of consolidation is waht Apple’s very good at, but even Steve Jobs couldn’t get the studios and broadcasters to play nice. I worry that Cook will have an even harder time.

What the Apple TV must do – and decidedly hasn’t done – is offer a best-of-breed alternative to all the futz that currently exists. I’ve used the PS3, the Xbox, the Boxee Box, countless WD and Roku devices, and Google TV. None except the Boxee box support the free and easy streaming of “home” content and none at all offer the celestial video jukebox that needs to exist for these things to be valuable in a living room context. I need a solution that makes the process of watching content from various streams seamless and that is very, very hard.

The days of buying a PlayStation 2 “so we can watch DVDs” (an excuse I used back in 2001) are over. Non-gamers will not pick up an Xbox for its attractive streaming package. Instead, non-gamers will flock towards an ATV. What Apple must do is offer what the iPod offered – a dead simple interface and a media store that can make 99% of the world happy. Right now – and I include the Xbox interface in this woeful analysis – we have a set of horrible, conflicting interfaces and a media store that will make 45% of the world happy, provided that 45% percent doesn’t want to watch Starz content.

We can and will live with the current batch of streamers. We can cobble together a streaming media experience with the tools available, be they simple set-top boxes or complex gaming consoles. But until someone gets it right – and I mean really right – I wouldn’t recommend a single one to anyone looking for a real video-watching experience.