Spoutin' Off: Apple TV is a good idea that doesn't go far enough
By Michael Rau
March 26, 2007
In our last episode, we mulled some fundamental changes in the way we receive television programming. Today we're going to examine something that might represent a coming revolution in the delivery of such.
Apple has released their so-called Apple TV appliance, the announcement of which we covered a couple of months ago. Apple TV is a device designed to streamline and simplify the transmission of digital video files from your computer to your TV - nothing more, nothing less. It does so in the kind of elegant and user-friendly manner that has always tended to set Apple apart.
The device has received some glowing reviews, including one from tech-maven Walt Mossberg. I wish I too could give it a big sloppy thumbs-up, but alas - I can't. It's not that it doesn't do what it does very well. It's that it falls so short of my expectations and desires.
First off, let's talk about just what Apple TV is. From one perspective, you can look at it as sort of a desktop iPod. It takes the exact same types of files you buy from the iTunes store and enables their playback on your suitably equipped TV. It targets people who go to the iTunes store to buy episodes of TV shows, movies, concert films, even songs (albeit without video) and want to play them on that gorgeous new wide-screen TV instead of their computer monitor.
As I said, it apparently does this quite well. It runs on a modified version of OS X, and communicates with your Mac or Windows PC via a wireless connection. It syncs the files in your iTunes library to its internal hard drive (although at only 40 GB, it's not gonna hold much video). It then ports to your TV using either an HDMI digital or component video connection.
So what's my beef? To explain, I have to talk about what Apple TV isn't.
It won't play just any video file from your computer. It has to be formatted for the iPod (mpeg-4, H264, at a bit rate of 5 kbps or less), and then loaded into iTunes. If you have video in a different format, you'll have to convert it first. This also means that you can only watch "Web-quality" video, as opposed to DVD-quality or even broadcast-quality, using this device.
Additionally, the device currently works only if you have a computer loaded with iTunes. Apple has said that they intend to make it a stand-alone device eventually, capable of logging onto the iTunes Store and downloading files to its own hard drive without the aid of another computer, but it's not there yet.
I firmly believe that Internet delivery of programming is a key element in the future of mass entertainment, but not the only one. Delivery via cable and fiber will be around for years, if not decades. Internet delivery will have to be able to provide the same resolution and quality of video and audio as these other technologies before it will be truly competitive.
That doesn't mean that cable and fiber delivery won't evolve. The grassroots effort to force these industries to provide their channels on an a la carte basis is a good example. And many terrestrial providers are also enabling more and more free programming to be delivered as video-on-demand in an effort to remain competitive.
So we'll be getting our television content from a variety of sources for the foreseeable future, and this is why I believe the Apple TV device falls short of being the harbinger of the revolution.
I expected Apple to accomplish much more than just creating an alternate delivery device for iTunes products. I discussed this in a column over a year ago.
I envisioned a device that would combine the functions that Apple TV now provides, along with an ATSC digital tuner, a port for a cable descrambler, a DVR system with a big honkin' hard drive and a DVD player (maybe even Blu-Ray).
This one stand-alone device, combined with a high-definition monitor in the size and resolution of your choice, would be able to provide all the video programming and product you want from every available source. All these technologies are compatible and combinable in one device. It's just that no one's done it yet. I thought that maybe it would be Apple, but they seem to be more interested, at least right now, in guarding their iTunes franchise. Right now, Apple TV is just another in a multitude of set-top gizmos.
Maybe this is just a first step for them, but for right now, unless you're an avid fan of video from the iTunes store, I can't recommend buying the Apple TV appliance. Hopefully, the next generation will be based on broader thinking.
One more thing, and this is about our last column. Several of you wrote to point out that I had made a mistake and an incorrect assumption. Verizon does offer CableCard descramblers for their FiOS-TV service, and they are providing the service unbundled. I apologize for providing inaccurate information and appreciate the help getting it corrected.
Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, go to http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.
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