Do We Really Want An Apple TV?

Apple TVMany were hoping for Apple to announce the much hyped Apple TV sets at the WWDC conference last night, but whilst they did announce some new links between iOS6 and the current AppleTV boxes, there was no news on the integrated devices. But the real question we should be asking is do people want an Apple TV?

I have no doubt that the device itself will be impressive with a stunning screen, an innovative UI, and great integration with Apple devices like iPads and iPhones – but this will come at a price. Most Apple products today have a shelf life of two to three years, with the pace of change in the computing and mobile spaces ever increasing and people are OK with that because their smartphones are often subsidised and there is always ever more complex software to get the most out of new computing hardware – making the upgrade useful. However, currently most people tend to keep their TVs for considerably longer.

3D has not really caught on in the home environment (and there’s a backlash at the cinema too), so once someone has bought a large 1080p TV screen, I don’t imagine they see themselves upgrading for much longer than 3 years. TVs have numerous connections such as HDMI to connect to other pieces of hi-definition hardware, and the benefit of this more modular system is that when a piece of technology becomes out of date, you can just upgrade that module. In the last decade we have seen DVDs replaced by a war between HD-DVD and Blu-Ray in which Blu-Ray came out on top after plenty of wrangling and wasted investment; the move to high definition digital TV whether through satellite (Sky), cable (Virgin Media), or Freeview; and the advent of TV-catchup and video on demand (VOD) services like BBC iPlayer, 4OD, Hulu, and Netflix which are increasingly being integrated into TVs and set-top boxes.

People are more willing to embrace these changes because they just add an extra box to their current setup with a relatively small cost. Or with the digital services – they are increasingly integrated into TVs, Blu-Ray players, and games consoles so there is not extra investment in equipment needed. Set-top boxes and TVs themselves are increasingly just silent computers that can perform a variety of entertainment tasks from watching/recording TV to streaming any sort of media from the internet or other devices.

Large hi-def TVs have fallen greatly in price over the last decade as well to the point now when they cost less than a smartphone out of contract, such as these Toshiba TVs or these Samsung Smart TVs on sale at Argos – so how will Apple justify its premium?

The Apple TV will have four main selling points: its looks; its ease of use/gesture controls; its integration with other Apple products; and the Apple brand. Apple certainly has a flare for product design so I have no doubt it will be beautifully designed by Jonathan Ive and his team, but they may struggle more on the other points.

It is expected that Siri will be the mastermind behind much of the control of the AppleTV, but Siri is laughably bad outside of the US with it notoriously poor at understanding regional British accents never mind different languages. Siri’s integrations are also only really good in the US, limiting much of what such controls can offer – and I imagine the same will be true of Apple TV.

All of Apple’s devices have always had easy wireless integration, and having a large screen on the wall to show off photos from your iPhone or a videos streaming form your iPad will be a great experience. However, Apple is notoriously bad at integrating with products from *any* other manufacturer. There are millions of iPhone users with Windows PCs, but iTunes for Windows is dreadfully slow, bloated, and crashy. You can’t play back songs or videos downloaded from the iTunes store on most other devices due to proprietary formats and incompatible DRM which Apple refuses to share with its competitors leaving the consumer at a disadvantage with the content they’ve paid for. The same has more recently happened with iBooks and Apple again using a proprietary format and DRM to keep eBooks bought by Apple devices locked into the Apple ecosystem.

All of these lock-ins are fine when Apple makes the products you want to integrate, but what if you have an Android smartphone? Or a Windows PC? Or a PlayStation? Apple makes it extremely difficult for those users to make all those products talk to each other – even when the technology to do so has been available for years. If your device is only going to last three years, then lock-ins are OK because you are only committed to the platform for the short term. But with a TV you are committed to the platform for more like a decade. Will Apple still be at the shiny god at the top of the technology sector in a decade? Probably not. And it will most likely not be Google or Microsoft either – it is called progress and change. And do you want to be stuck with a TV that makes a point of not integrating with whichever tools are available then? The sheen and halo has already come off Apple since the passing of Steve Jobs – with Tim Cook’s focus on efficiency rather than having any sort of vision, and that does not bode well for the future of the company’s products.

When the Apple TV is finally released, I have no doubt they will sell a good number of units and can claim some form of success, but unless they manage to find a price-point that competes with the smart TV already on the market or start playing well with other companies then it definitely won’t be a game-changer.

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