Come on Steve, at WWDC Make the Apple TV Great

by Chris Seibold Jun 05, 2008

WWDC is next week and all the talk is about the iPhone. This isn't surprising, Leopard is less than a year old, Mac boxes have apparently reached the pinnacle of design so people have given up on a carbon fiber (or something) MacBook Pro. Plus changes for the iPhone have been previously confirmed, more changes hinted at and Apple has been signing distribution deals so quickly Steve is finding difficult to keep his ball point pen full. Add to all that the iPhone is a winner. People love the thing, they love to show it off, they love to use it, the only thing they really want is more iPhone. Faster internet, landscape mode throughout, more programs, more of everything that makes the iPhone great.

Once the Mac is jettisoned from the WWDC equation (at least the media churning keynote part) we're left with iPods right? Apple is all about the Mac, the iPhone and iPods after all. But the iPod is dead. Sure, Apple still sells iPods but the shuffle, the Classic and the nano will soon be relics. Everyone carries a phone and the iPhone is a better iPod than any other model. Sooner than you expect your iPod will be sitting in the dresser drawer, a piece of once expensive technology that you no longer want but can't stand to throw away. That kills everything but the iPhone for WWDC right? Not so fast.

There is an oft over looked component of Apple's product matrix called the Apple TV. The reason people forget about the thing is because no one has one. What could be great isn't, but greatness isn't far off. WWDC, with all the iPhone hype would be a great time for Apple to revamp the Apple TV. We've had Apple TV 1.0, Apple TV take two but it is really time for Apple TV we got it fucking right this time. Or, for the lovers of trite: Apple TV The Third times a charm.

When people talk about the failures of the Apple TV they talk about movies in 720P. They talk about the size of the hard drive, they talk about the woefully inadequate remote, they talk about the lack of PVR features. They're looking for reasons to not like, they know something isn’t right about the thing and they can't quite put their finger on it so they just guess.

Well, though Hadley will vehemently disagree, until you get to screen sizes greater than 42" and optimum viewing distances there isn't a humanly discernable difference between 720P and 1080P. Perform the experiment yourself (double blinded), calculate the pixel density and the limits of human visual acuity, etc. It all adds up to one thing, the resolution isn't a problem.

The resolution is one example of what people think is wrong with the Apple TV and it is also a great example of a red herring. What is holding the Apple TV back isn't a resolution issue or a PVR issue or a remote issue. What holds the Apple TV back is that Apple is not letting the Apple TV be all it could be, and all the brakes are put on by the software.

If a klaxon went off in your head when you read that, see a doctor. If you were mildly surprised by the very idea that the software is flawed it is because the Apple TV software is outstanding. There just isn't much of it. You can watch YouTube videos and Apple TV offerings. You can look at pics in your library and so forth. But you can't browse the 'net. Having a computer more than capable of browsing the net that can't is like having a TV set that doesn't get channels 2-13. The Big Book of Apple Hacks covers the procedure for adding a browser to your Apple TV (a worthwhile hack) but it should come out of the box with the capability. Hopping over to to check reviews before you rent is pretty neat and one can easily envision a link from the review to the iTunes rental.

But the Apple TV is capable of more. Why not make the Apple TV a router? You've got a Wi Fi router, the Apple TV can do N. The software to make the Apple TV perform both the duties of an Apple TV and a router is a simple thing to add. From Apple's perspective this seems to be bad idea. If someone buys an Apple TV there isn't any reason to buy a base station. It seems to be a horrible idea.

Recall, however, that the Apple TV isn't just a box that generates revenue on a one time basis. The Apple TV offers a consistent revenue stream with movie rentals and purchases so forgoing the sales of the Airport Extreme Base station to get more people buying Apple TV would actually be a cagey move.

Suddenly the Mac as the digital hub is gone replaced by the Apple TV. Long term that is a great thing. The only difference between traditional TV and YouTube to a five year old is that YouTube is much better because you can watch lego movies anytime you want. The line between online content and traditional TV will only grow blurrier as today's kids get older. It would behoove Apple to have a huge presence in this area and every Apple TV they can get in to the hands of a consumer will pay off down the road. Now is the time to get people hooked, Apple can reel fish a few years down the road.

WWDC would be the perfect time to open the Apple TV up and make it the compelling product it should be. C'mon Steve, make the Apple TV great.


  • So you’re saying they should add a web browser (plus link to IMDB) and add routing capability… is that it for “Take 3”

    I have a few thoughts
    1) AppleTV uses a cut down version of 10.4.7. It needs to be based on the FUTURE OSes not the past. I’m wondering if the iPhone OS should be the core.

    2) While I agree that you can’t tell the difference between 720p and 1080p, I think we need an upgraded processor that is capable of 1080p. Bandwidth is too much for now but useful as future proofing. (And Apple could send down a resolution test to people who reckon they can tell the difference, AND collect the results!)

    3) We need the AppleTV to work with ratings.
    - When watching pictures or music we can’t change volume, so why not make the volume change my ratings?
    - Use the volume while watching youtube to mark something from 1 to 5 stars (or higher as a “favourite”).
    - Watch a movie trailer and mark it as “great” through to “ignore” and when Apple releases the movie for rental remind us it’s available!

    4) We need some applications (port from iPhone? Dashboard?). Weather widget would be good. Today’s calendar (in the morning) or tomorrows calendar (at night) combining my wife and my calendars. Synchronised TV postit notes.

    5) For all of us who have parents using the AppleTV… let us ‘send’ their AppleTV our recommendations - rentals, trailers, podcasts, youtube, .mac slideshows, even a prepurchased song as a gift.

    6) Split movie trailers into “coming soon” & “now showing”, & “coming to rental”. Link from movie trailers to local cinema info/times.

    7) Interactive news. Why not work with ABC and make an interactive “summary of the news” - then have links to the individual articles you want to watch (and even link further to more detail). They can download on demand like movie trailers.

    8) Not sure where or if a DVR fits in with the basic model. I certainly think there’s room for an “AppleTV+” with DVR.

    But… I don’t know if the above would attract people more. Perhaps they need to tightly integrate iPhone to AppleTV in some cool ways before it’ll be noticed.

    Greg Alexander had this to say on Jun 05, 2008 Posts: 228
  • I agree 100%. Apple TV is a classic example of hardware that’s capable of so much but limited by software. I think Apple doesn’t want people watching netflix movies or other online content on their device. They want to lock you in to the Apple ecosystem. But that is shortsighted. Apple TV needs a new iPhone like interface, Safari, Mail, and a few other iphone-like applications. That would be a killer product, well worth the $229! And that would get Apple into the living room…

    magicg had this to say on Jun 05, 2008 Posts: 8
  • What it needs most of all is a bigger HD movie catalog and more time to finish watching a movie rental.  All those features suggested above are mere bells and whistles.  People will buy AppleTV for movie rentals.  If they don’t get that right it will never sell in any meaningful quantity.  No matter how many other features they put in there.

    tundraboy had this to say on Jun 05, 2008 Posts: 132
  • Yeah, a bigger movie catalog would be good. Including HD movies (and HD Tv shows while they’re there). And for australia, ANY movie/tv catalog.

    I’d also go for rental TV shows - and ad supported rentals. AppleTV could easily force us to watch 2 ads per regular ad break, customised to our interests and with links to further information. (That’s got to be worth more to advertisers than 10 ads that aren’t targeted at all which we skip anyway).

    Sometimes (but not always) when renting a HD movie, rather than waiting 20 minutes to start I’d rather start immediately on the SD version, and once it works out the download speed and compares to size of SD and HD versions it upgrades automatically, say 45 mins into the movie.
    (I guess if it has ads pre-stored on the AppleTV, it can use them to allow shows to start more quickly)

    Greg Alexander had this to say on Jun 05, 2008 Posts: 228
  • I think Remote Disc for viewing DVDs would be great. I know this isn’t a money maker, but it is a selling point. As long as your entire network is 802.11n (or Ethernet), I don’t see why it wouldn’t work.

    Widgets, including Mail, would add a lot of functionality (as stated before). I can see why Apple doesn’t want it to become a full blown computer, but still, a few more bones could be thrown.

    TowerTone had this to say on Jun 05, 2008 Posts: 6
  • It seems to me that with Apple TV, Apple is waiting for something to happen, rather than making it happen. Apple is being reactive, rather than proactive.

    As an analogy, it would be like if it released the original iPhone with a keyboard and some limited single-touch features to see if people might be interested in touch.

    That’s what Apple seems to have done with the Apple TV. It’s just sticking a toe in the water. With the Apple TV, Apple seems to have lost its courage.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Jun 06, 2008 Posts: 1209
  • from 2x aTV household:
    I am currently recording 1024x576 (16:9 PAL-SD) broadcast,
    but the very same TV show on ITMS is only 640x480 (4:3 NTSC-SD)- and there is a noticeable difference in quality between the two driving a 1080i display.

    I do agree that 720p (1280x720) and full-HD (1920x1080) will not make a big difference; in theory yes- but once you get 720p content I think you will “see” it the same way. I guess it has also to do that 720p is MP4-H264 encoded, and MP4 just “looks” better (like one class of resolution more).

    To summarize: I’d buy more movies and TV shows, but the current resolution does not seem to make it good value given the measly (640x480) pixel quality.

    MacPro2x4 had this to say on Jun 06, 2008 Posts: 1
  • MacPro2x4 - I very much doubt you’re recording 1024x576i. More like 720x576i.
    When converted to AppleTV, your program would upscales it to 1024x576p to make it square pixels.

    While your broadcast is not as high as you think, the AppleTV iTMS TV show is actually worse. It’s 640x480 for a 4:3 show, but 640x360 for a 16:9 show.

    So 720x576i vs 640x360p.

    I would certainly like to see the AppleTV standard quality bumped up.
    960x540 would be a good step, and it’s easily converted from both 720p and 1080i source material..

    Greg Alexander had this to say on Jun 06, 2008 Posts: 228
  • I really do want to find the AppleTV to be compelling enough to buy.  I currently use my Xbox 360, which I already had, as a media extender.  Even though it wasn’t made for it, the 360 does almost everything the ATV does.  I can stream podcasts, videos, and music from my Mac. I can rent TV shows and HD movies, and even download free content from Xbox Live.

    The only gap is Youtube, which isn’t worth the purchase price of the ATV.  If it were, I’d just take my little-used PC and hook it up directly to my HDTV and have Youtube, along with Netflix streaming, and a browser for every other kind of video content, plus checking my mail.

    All of that is less than ideal since the 360 isn’t really made for streaming video, and my PC+keyboard+mouse is cumbersome.

    So I’m wondering what the ATV can add (or lower the price to) in order to get someone like me to be convinced.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Jun 06, 2008 Posts: 2220
  • Beeblebrox - I’d say the ATV couldn’t get someone like you convinced grin

    Especially since you already have an Xbox360, a more powerful machine.
    And the ease of use isn’t a selling point because you have the technical know-how.

    If Apple wanted people like you they’d need to make a games machine wouldn’t they?

    Greg Alexander had this to say on Jun 06, 2008 Posts: 228
  • Chris, what you are hoping for is for Apple to turn the TV into the iPhone for the Living Room.

    I too would clamor for it. Imagine:

    1. Its integration with the iTS applications repository for fee or free applications and casual games.

    2. Sync services with my iCal, Mail, & work Exchange email.

    3. Using your iPhone or Touch to tap, tap, tap as your remote interface. Never mind the Bluetooth keyboard as Chris H. mentioned.

    4. An improvement in hardware/software is always welcome but current Take 2 can already support 1080p if you are willing to encode them yourself.

    5. The 720p issue is a non-issue. That resolution is fine up to 60in panels. The issue with it is the bit-rate of the encoding. It must be at least 4-6Mbps to be acceptable not 1-2Mbps as they are now. There’s not enough bits per pixel block to make a really sharp frames. Notice those jaggies during fast actions? Hmmm.

    6. Having mobile Safari integrated would kill the Mac mini, yes, BUT the mini is not selling like hotcakes, either. What Apple needs to do is to merge the two into a coherent one that can serve both markets. Either that or move the mini upscale below the iMac.

    7. Use Web 2.0 technologies on the Third Time’s a Charm update. Use interactivity with the movie and music selections like Greg (post 1) mentioned. Use that capability as an advert driver to lower the price down a bit.

    8. Backward support older TVs via S-Video and composite inputs. If you are telling folks to first buy an HDTV panel to use TV then you have this exact conundrum. Downconverting a 1080/720p content to SD PAL/NTSC is trivial and is not impossible. The more people to come aboard then discover that it is better to have HDTV, the better, but forcing folks to HDTV is another matter.

    9. More, more, more HD movies. New releases are fine but back catalogs are also needed for those out-of-this-world impulses, “Hey, I have seen this movie at <insert your buddy here>. It was great! Here, let’s search iTS Movies with my awesome TV…Wha?!!...” I know, I know, things will improve with time. It’s just that it needs to be now.

    10. Yes, Chris, the TV needs a recording capability. Slap the bitchin’ Time Capsule with a 1TB drive as another step-up model and see which one flies off the shelves. So, a DVR or whatever Apple calls it is a must for me and lots of people who rips their movies for a whole-home movie distribution. It would be awesome!


    Robomac had this to say on Jun 06, 2008 Posts: 846
  • “If Apple wanted people like you they’d need to make a games machine wouldn’t they?”

    The thing is that 95% of the time, I use the 360 as a media extender, not a game machine.  But you’re right, I don’t think there’s a lot they can.  If anything, it would be easier for the 360 to improve its media interface than for the ATV to add killer features.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Jun 06, 2008 Posts: 2220
  • Another thing, I know I am sick & tired of having another box along with my other box collection…hint, hint. Steve get a scratch pad, hurry!

    Many companies not just Apple have tried their very best to offer a “living room” solution to no avail. What Apple needs to do is work with these HDTV companies to design a standard slot in the back panel - say a PCIe-based expansion port with two or three standard sizes for flexibility for ODMs.

    Then Apple, and others, can use this standardized interface form-factor to “add in” their set top box functionalities like the TV. This way everyone from Samsung, Sony, Moto, Apple, or Pace all have a fair shot at convincing all couch potatoes. But we know just who would win, don’t we?

    Voila! We just got rid of the “Damn, another box on top of the TV!” sort of thing. I think this is what’s keeping this market small. We just want to use whatever is built into the TV’s. Making it appear as though it is part of the TV, that would be better, I think.

    Robomac had this to say on Jun 06, 2008 Posts: 846
  • Great thoughts everyone, here is what I think. Make the Apple TV free with a movie subscription contract (kind of like the cellphone market model). So, I can get an Apple TV if I pay 20 bucks a month, which gives me access to, say 5 movie rentals.

    In addition the AppleTV needs a DVR capability, I have too many boxes already!

    Hadley Stern had this to say on Jun 07, 2008 Posts: 114
  • Wow, the comments were much more insightful than the article! Thanks everyone.

    Chris Seibold had this to say on Jun 08, 2008 Posts: 354
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