Apple's Flawed TV Strategy: It's (Not Quite) The Cloud, Stupid

When looking at the current incarnation of Apple TV we find a tragically flawed device that overshot and underperformed at the same time. Essentially an iPod Classic with HDMI out, the Apple TV had a pitiful hard drive and a useless OS unless hacked. In the end, it was more expensive and more underpowered than anyone liked and competitors quickly filled the niche, offering format agnostic streaming boxes with Netflix support and devices like the Xbox 360 that allowed UPNP access to content on your network.

In the end, I got rid of my Apple TV even after hacking it to oblivion. I tried to love it. I really did. Unfortunately, however, I probably won’t be going back to the platform, even if the $99 mini-iTV Apple TV thinger appears on September 1st. Here’s why.

For one of the first times, Apple is way late too the game when it comes to a media device. While they perfected the smartphone and the MP3 player (come on, even you flamebois have to admit they did a good job with the iPod and iPhone line), they won’t be able to catch up to the devices that already exist. The iTV will mimic a number of devices, some with a massive install base already, so there is almost no reason to suggest the iTV unless Apple has something amazing up their sleeve.

There are two reasons to own an iTV or any other box including offerings from Seagate, Roku, and Western Digital (I reviewed most of them here and found the Western Digital WD TV Live Plus to be best of show): Netflix streaming and home network connectivity. While a 99 cent TV show rental sounds good on paper, folks already have DVRs for their favorite shows and if they don’t have cable they’ve figured out other ways to get TV shows. And that’s where the Apple TV or iTV fails.

The current Apple TV experience depends on having an instance of iTunes open somewhere on your network. Barring some magical trick where Apple allows you to stream music and video you own from its own servers, I think the 172GB of music I have on my hard drives isn’t going to hitting the cloud anytime soon. The iTV will presumably allow you to do a few things:

  • Stream audio and video from an open iTunes instance on a Mac or PC
  • Stream audio and video from apps like Netflix, Pandora, and whoever else wants to make an app
  • Stream rented and purchased video from Apple’s servers, where applicable

    However, all of these functions require you to stay in Apple’s walled garden and will allow no local storage except, perhaps, for Time Capsule access over the network.

    While these limitations are fine for the average user, I doubt the average user is quite ready to cut the DVR cord and go completely iTV. Therefore, you only have power users to please and those users are already getting their content from elsewhere on the web. To those users, the Apple TV is useless. At best you must transcode your video so the Apple TV can handle it and at worst you can’t play the video at all. For example, high-def video in the MKV format is a bear to play on iTunes and presumably only H.264 will be supported for all video, which requires lengthy transcoding.

    Again, we’re positing based on suppositions. This is never a good way to talk about a device, but given previous experience with Apple TV and knowing Apple’s history when it comes to lock-down, I’m really worried that even at $99 I won’t be watching Mad Men on my Apple TV/iTV any time soon.