Undooming the Apple TV

by Chris Seibold Apr 24, 2008

Hadley Stern recently wrote that the problem with the Apple TV was the resolution. The idea being that the HD option when using Apple TV lacks the clarity required. The Apple TV plays rentals, if you choose the HD option, at a resolution of 720P. For now the top resolution of HD is 1080P (this is a spec in constant flux). The lowered resolution, Hadley argued, spells doom for the Apple TV.

The notion seems plausible. Bigger numbers are always better so anything less than 1080P is a waste of time right? Well, maybe not. HD is one of those weird things that everyone thinks they absolutely have to have and while simultaneously proving they don't really need it. Find your favorite HD obsessed person and open their browsing history. Chances are you'll see a bunch of youtube links in there. What? Youtube links from the guy who swears up and down anything that isn't HD is simply unacceptable? How is such a thing possible!

Here it is tempting to delve into the limits of human visual acuity but that involves minutes of degrees and so forth and the calculations are enough to make Neils Bohr bleed from the ears. Suffice it to say that there is good chance, in fact every chance, that viewers think 1080P looks better because they've been told it looks better. In an ideal viewing situation th e difference is probably discernable but, except for those thankfully rare people consumed with recreating the movie theatre experience in their home, most TV's aren't viewed under ideal conditions.

Imagine for a moment you own a 42" HD plasma TV. Further imagine when you got it the things cost five thousand dollars. And to top it off we'll imagine you didn't pay a dime for it. Why is this important? It isn't, I just want to make sure no one thinks I would willingly part with thousands of dollars for a stupid friggin' TV set.

Okay, 42" inches is pretty big, certainly big enough for a living room. Well, maybe not Hadley's living room. That guy lives in a 57,000 square foot mansion. For the normal folks who rely on book sales and such for income 42" is definitely big enough for the living room. Or at least it would be if the recommendations for proper HD viewing weren't so demanding. That $5,000 TV that is bigger than any other TV you've ever owned has an ideal viewing distance of 8 feet. If your couch is 12 feet away from the TV the chances of 1080P and 720P being discernable from each other are slim. So forget the complaints about the resolution of the Apple TV lest you end up obsessing over mostly imagined quality trade offs like some paste eating audiophile.

If resolution isn't holding back the Apple TV what is? Could the problem be download speed? In my case it takes 6 or 7 hours to download an HD movie to my Apple TV (blame my ISP) so there is more planning that has to go into to watching  a movie with the Apple TV than if I picked one up at BlockBuster. For me, and most people, download speed is a temporary problem. Internet speeds will get faster (I'm getting 25 Mbps PONs next month so I can forget it) so even if download speeds are an issue this second they won't be a problem for long.

Could it be selection? For now selection is certainly a concern. Take the children's selection for example, you'll get much more choice in movies at your local Wal-Mart than you will using iTunes. Which is surprising, Disney has a ton of kids movies (Bambi 2 for example) that kids will watch just because they are cartoons (kids aren't sticklers for plot twists and nuanced acting) which one would think would be ideal for the harried mother looking to shut the kids up for a couple of hours while she steals off with the landscaper or something. Steve owns a large chunk of Disney and likes easy cash so you have to wonder why those animated schlock fests aren't showing up in iTunes. That noted paucity of offerings won't last forever, movies are constantly being added to iTunes so mom shouldn't have any problem in the coming years if that one time foray with the gardener turns out to be a weekly thing.

So where is the problem? Why isn't the Apple TV taking off? Apple is selling it to the wrong people. Who knows about the AppleTV? A bunch of geeks. And to geeks the Apple TV isn't that appealing. Geeks can already get HD movies off the internet and they don't have to pay. Geeks can build their own TV solutions that are more encompassing than an AppleTV. The moment Apple called the thing an "iPod for your TV" the Apple TV was fighting with one hand behind its back because the iPod was an easy way to carry the music you ripped from your CD collection with you. Anyone can rip CDs but give an average user a DVD and tell them to rip it and see how far they get.

With the comparison to the iPod out of way and geeks as a decent market for the square repository of media it is time to see who the Apple TV actually appeals to. Geeks and hackers are straight out, so who is left? Everyone else. Everyone else is a big market. Hadley referenced it in his article when he noted that for his kids Apple TV playing youtube videos of lego star wars is TV.

How can we be sure that the Apple TV appeals to the non computer types among us? A few case studies are in order. Consider the case of Sharon X. With a name like that you're surprised she's not into porn but there you have it. What was her reaction when playing with the Apple TV the first time? First she watched movie trailers. Then she watched youtube videos. Then she rented a movie and watched that. Before she had realized what happened she had killed a Saturday. Realizing the entire day was gone she looked up and said: "Jeebus, you'd never have to leave the house."

One example is just an anecdote but two examples are hard evidence! Well, maybe not hard evidence but 100% more exampley than a single case. So consider Steve X (no relation despite the similar last name). While Steve couldn't quite grasp the difference between an Apple TV and on demand video (the difference could be argued as mostly semantic after all) he was smitten by the easily accessed content and so forth. After playing with the Apple TV for a better part of a day Steve X couldn't wait to get home and try out the on demand video that was about to be offered by his cable company. In short, he didn't understand the Apple TV but he enjoyed it immensely.

The Apple TV is full of appeal for those who don't find computers full of appeal. The question for Apple is how to capitalize on this untapped market. Here there are no easy answers. How do you show how great the Apple TV is at getting the computer out of the way to people who don't want computer in their way? How do you tell people who hate computers, even if they are computer literate, that the answer to their woes is yet another computer? That is a difficult question; one that Apple is having a lot of trouble answering.

Whether Apple sells one more Apple TV or one billion more Apple TVs the success or failure of the device won't hinge on the opinions of the computing elite. The success will depend upon the company's ability to position the Apple TV as a solution for everyone. And that won't happen as long as Apple lets the product languish in the realm of the thing you buy from Apple after you have nothing left to buy from Apple.

Oh, and the remote sucks too.




  • Wow, I am breathless at your splendid writing, CS!

    Yes, the TV T2 is a fine conduit of movies, music, internet content, and home photos to your pristine 42” plasma screen. 480p, 720p, 1080i and p variants they are all fine with me. Hulu broadcasts at max HD 480p and it is very watchable let alone 720p or 1080i. I agree, it is all numbers game after 720p. We are naturally attracted to bigger numbers both real and literal.

    The toughest thing the TV and every devices attaching themselves to the TV is acceptance. People are programmed since childhood to expect that instant “live TV” experience - it is called instant gratification.

    When that “gratification” is a bit delayed by onerous menu system, all of them will fail. The TV’s menu system is one of the best, if not the best of the set-top boxes (STB) out there. The problem is that people have come to expect STB’s to mean: another friggin box on top of the TV. And that means more complicated wiring to the receiver or TV. Then top that off with the learning curve - and a mix of curses to themselves - figuring out the unfamiliar user interface.

    And what of the TV’s marketing? All I see on American Idol are Mac and iPhone ads. If there were a venue for this thing it would be on this show’s audience. If Apple ever gets serious on their “hobby” they need to promote it more to the right audience, otherwise the TV will miss its window of opportunity no matter how cool and feature-laden it will become. It will just be another niche hobby as it is now - for the geek crowd like us.

    Oh yes, the Apple Remote gotta go. wink

    Robomac had this to say on Apr 24, 2008 Posts: 846
  • I couldn’t agree with you more, Chris. I have a Pioneer 42” plasma connected to my TV at 720p, and it looks great. I get 7 MBps download, and “2010:The Year We Make Contact” took 30 minutes to begin watching. How much longer would 1080p take? And would I notice the difference had I a 1080p LCD next to my plasma? I doubt it, unless the TV was over 60” in size.
    For the price, speed, and probably less heat, 720 was a good choice for Apple. My photos and graphics look incredible, YouTube can only look so good, no matter the resolution, trailers load fast, and .Mac plays smooth.

    Hadley makes no more sense to me than another article I read claiming Apple has hit the glass ceiling because it can’t penetrate enterprise, as if the consumer market were already tapped.

    And does anyone know the Apple Remote code to load into another remote, say, like my Bose?

    TowerTone had this to say on Apr 24, 2008 Posts: 6
  • Wow, Hadley Stern lives in a 57,000 square foot mansion?

    Nemin had this to say on Apr 24, 2008 Posts: 35
  • Thanks for the comments. For the record Hadley does live in a 57,000 square foot mansion. It has a built in basketball court and a sauna. It may seem excessive but probably half the space is reserved for staff quarters.

    Chris Seibold had this to say on Apr 24, 2008 Posts: 354
  • For the record, this is an example of Chris Seibold’s wacky sense of humor. I do not live in a 57,000 mansion nor do I have staff!

    Hadley Stern had this to say on Apr 24, 2008 Posts: 114
  • Apple TV is a computer. It’s souped up with composite video and HDMI and whatever else, but it’s still a stripped down computer. The problem is that they’ve stripped away TOO much. It’s a great media player, but only for what’s compatible with and purchased from Apple. Outside of the Apple ecosystem it’s useless.

    I recently hooked up a mac mini to my 32” HDTV. It’s a 1st gen G4 @1.25 GHZ and 1 GB memory. Bluetooth keyboard and mouse. I bought it in 2004 and it’s almost obsolete compared to the new macs. But guess what? It’s pretty awesome. I can do everything Apple TV can and much more. The biggest difference? The internet. I can use Firefox or Safari or whatever and watch content for FREE. I can watch Lost on ABC or the Office on Hulu, etc…

    This is a very interesting comment at http://technology.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/tech_and_web/personal_tech/article3640139.ece

    “There’s a pretty simple way to place a losing bet in the technology game. Try to build an alternative to the web, or try and pretend it’s not there. The brutal Darwinian politics of networking mean that the web, like the house, always wins. It’s always better, faster, and stronger. I think a good web experience is really the biggest weapon that Apple has smuggled into the carrier’s world via the iPhone – it’s a Trojan horse that brings the power of the web into their walled gardens. They don’t stand a chance. In five years you’ll have a great web browser on your phone and the web will have eaten the mobile data industry.”

    So why would I buy another computer (Apple TV) that doesn’t have the web? That’s the biggest problem with Apple TV. The good news is they could fix it with a software upgrade. The bad news is that they haven’t, and maybe aren’t going to. Apple’s loss. It’s ironic - you’d think they’d do to TV what they did to the cell phone industry.

    magicg had this to say on Apr 25, 2008 Posts: 8
  • I can do everything Apple TV can and much more. -magicg

    Exactly. I have been in this position since TV T1 came out. Why not merge the low-end mini with the TV and have the best of both worlds. Is that logic really that deep? I know someone said that this concept is “genius”. Gosh…

    So why would I buy another computer (Apple TV) that doesn’t have the web?

    The TV is caught in a bind - a rock and a hard place - that potential customers at the Apple Store’s display are stupified when it comes to accepting the device. Is it a computer or a set-top box? Both. “Does it do the web or not?” Yes and no. “Does it play my DVD’s and internet downloads?” Yes and no. No, it doesn’t play your DVDs but a properly encoded version of that DVD is syncable via iTunes.

    See what I mean. It is really confusing even for many techies. Yes, it does the web - in a limited way. YouTube, Flickr, iTunes are there. It can navigate some web sites why not the rest?

    “What about movies I already have torrented?” TV supports iTunes M4V and Quicktime MP4 (both are H264 based) but not MKV, DiVX or XViD, or AVIs. “What gives?” C’mon guys, all it takes is a little Handbrake cocktail or VLC and, of course, lots of time waiting for the transcoding process takes a long time.

    But, magicg, here is the $64 million question: “If the Web is that critical for a TV set-top box, why did the WebTV players failed miserably?” I don’t think MS had anything to do with this failure. The TV audience (by a good chunk of the pie) do not do the “Web” on their TVs.

    I agree you can do this with your Mac mini for I have a similar setup with newer Core and Core 2 minis. I agree they are great. The thing is the typical TV viewer must first be conditioned to doing the “Web” on his TV. Not an easy thing to do, mind you. Just go ask MS WebTV division - if they still exists.

    Apple is solely to blame for this missing piece on their marketing. Apple has to convince people to accept the notion of having a “computer” attached to a TV is AWESOME for watching great movies from the Internet.

    Unfortunately, they haven’t done much here as they have with convincing people to accept the iPhone/Touch Multitouch keyboard. Apple should be doing similar advertisements the rewards of having an AppleTV in your living room.

    Robomac had this to say on Apr 25, 2008 Posts: 846
  • Page 1 of 1 pages
You need log in, or register, in order to comment