Apple misses the TV game again

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TV is a mess. It is hard to navigate to what you want to watch without having to deal with a mess of technology and diverse business plans rooted in crappy copyright laws. Everyone knows it and for ages we have waited for someone to cut through it and fix it.

Apple has had ambitions on this for years and has offered a few contributions. First, it put TV and movies on iTunes so you could watch a computer connected to a TV. Second, it put TV and movies on iPads and let you play them on a TV. Third, it developed Apple TV — a glorified iPod — to do the same thing. Each has helped but each suffers from the overall flaws in the system.

People had hoped that Apple’s new Apple TV device might solve that. It hasn’t and so it is time to reflect on why. (By the way, it all sucks for Australians as there is no TV rentals anyway so my reflections here are for the US).First, Steve Jobs understands some of the big issues. Yesterday he pointed out that managing storage is a pain for people and that most people don’t want to hook up yet another computer to their televisions. He is right about those things. So what did Apple do? It created a very small device with an HDMI port and so you can plug it into your TV and go. It is connected to the Internet and the idea is that you will not worry about storage on it but stream content either from your computer, iPad/iPhone or just rent stuff and play on demand. For that last part, Apple has made it easy with 99 cent HD TV shows (although a limited selection) and a $99 price point for the device in the US. That’s cheap. What is more, you can watch YouTube or NetFlix straight from the device. Also good.

Second, Steve Jobs misses some even bigger issues. For one, simplicity is no solution unless it is a substitute. With a limited selection and without the ability to watch live shows like the news, you can’t get away from having a cable box too. That means complexity and so Apple TV just doesn’t give the user enough.

For two, for reasons that are hard to understand (but they exist) people like to control their own media. I know that I might watch a Star Trek episode once and so rational me should be happy to just pay 99 cents when I want to watch it and take the better deal. But that is not how it works. I want to own it and have the option of a zero marginal price when I want to watch. This is the big problem with micropayments and people worry they will add up. A subscription might actually do a better job but there still may be issues of control. I predict that Apple will go the subscription route or sub-contract to someone else (e.g., Hulu) to get there.

Third, there is the problem of navigation. I’m sorry but a dinky remote without keyboard entry isn’t going to cut it. You have to be able to search (something Tivo just worked out). This is something that Google clearly understands and it looks very much like they are going to fly ahead in the TV game. But this one is Apple’s own fault. It has a solution to the problem that people have their own preferred ways of organising and navigating content. It can provide apps. Apps such as the ABC’s iView or a myriad of others provide ways of viewing videos. Apple needs to let those get on the Apple TV. Include a browser and a keyboard option and they will be in the game. From my perspective, it is frustrating to watch a company with clear promise here flail so badly.

In summary, Apple TV will not succeed this time because it isn’t a substitute, micropayments won’t cut it and it has failed to solve the navigation issue. These things are solvable — especially the last two. The mystery is what is taking so long.

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