Reality Check: Does Apple Really Want to Conquer the Living Room?

March 13th, 2007

You’ve got to hand it to the tech pundits. They feel they not only have the right to tell you what’s going on in the tech world, but they sometimes pretend to read the minds of the executives in charge of the companies. Truly awesome!

Now let’s be clear here. I’m a tech writer too, and I’ve written for some of the same publications as others, and I wouldn’t presume to claim that everything I do is absolutely perfect. At the same time, many tech writers are totally sincere in their work. They don’t let their egos get in the way, nor attempt to impugn motives on the part of a company without a sufficient amount of evidence.

In saying that, it’s being claimed more and more these days that Apple’s ultimate goal is to control the living room with its hardware and software. In other words, they desire to be intimately involved in the content you see and hear on your TV set and home audio system.

Is there any truth to that?

Surely the iPod is a strong contender, since tens of millions have been sold, and they contain billions and billions of songs and videos, including the ones many of you have purchased from the iTunes Store.

At the same time, despite the fact that it dominates the industry, only a small amount of iTunes content can be found on any particular iPod. The average is maybe a couple of dozen or so. This means that the rest of the content was acquired elsewhere, be it CDs, digital photos or videos. Most of it is legal, some of it otherwise, but that’s not the point.

So, despite its incredible impact, the iPod is largely a content carrier, but not the exclusive content carrier. Even though more and more motor vehicles have iPod connectors of one sort or another, it’s not the exclusive source of entertainment. There’s still the car radio, the CD player and — in a lesser number of cases — the cassette deck. Some vehicles even have DVD players and custom screens in the rear to keep the kids happy on a long trip.

In your home, you can play your iPod through your Mac or PC, any of a number of earphones, a separate speaker or full-blown audio system, and even through your TV. But it doesn’t dominate your living room.

That’s supposed to change with the Apple TV, which is supposed to ship shortly, after a short delay.

This gadget, which will store and convey your content — wirelessly or via a wired network — directly to a high-definition TV, is supposed to be the next step in Apple’s great plan. But where does it fit in? Certainly it’ll be ultra-convenient to transfer music and videos from computer to TV. But how is that going to replace your cable or satellite set top box or DVD player? Well, all right, your computer has a DVD player too, but isn’t it a lot easier to use the one hooked up directly to your TV?

Some day, you will soon be able to buy high-definition TV shows and movies from iTunes, although today’s broadband is really barely up to the task. But how does that translate to becoming the primary carrier for that stuff? Where, for example, is the TV tuner, the CableCard?

I suppose it could be argued that Apple taking baby steps that are part of a long-range plan that will eventually result in great things that will turn the entertainment industry on its ear. The Apple TV will be revised, expanded, and will eventually provide TiVO-like capabilities and far more, all done with Apple’s trademark elegance.

But right now, it hasn’t happened, and the existing products won’t take you there. They will easily integrate a Mac and a PC with your TV set, to be sure. They will indeed provide another method of content delivery. But an alternative is not a replacement.

True, you don’t know Apple’s long-range plan, nor do I. Certainly it’s fun to read the tea leaves, and try to glean trends and possible goals based on what has gone before. Beyond that, it’s all speculation, and I don’t think anyone outside of Apple is capable of ferreting out the truth.

Apple has pulled a few fast ones in the past, as they will in the future. Let’s leave it at that, at least in the real world. But there’s nothing wrong with a good guessing game.

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3 Responses to “Reality Check: Does Apple Really Want to Conquer the Living Room?”

  1. Dana Sutton says:

    Looked at as an entertainment device, the Apple TV box leaves a lot to be desired. It certainly doesn’t seem to replace a TiVo or similar DVR box, and it can’t be said to be a video equivalent of the iPod until if and when Apple makes available a viable scheme for marketing downloadible movies at reasonable prices, supported by a large library of choices. But the Apple TV has another possible use which might be Apple’s actual strategy: the Mac provides an excellent platform for editing video, and this new box is a fine tool for porting your work to a TV so you can view your work-in-progress or finished product on a large screen. The price of HDTV cameras is coming down and approaching the point they can be classified as consumer products, so that even home consumers will be able to benefit from sophisticated editing gear. For such users, the Apple TV will be an important piece of equipment. Maybe this is what Apple has in mind (this would be another step in a long-range strategy that began when Apple took such an early lead in marketing cinema-proportioned monitors).

  2. rwahrens says:

    Apple took an early lead in “cinema-proportioned monitors”, because the high end graphics houses that creates the content for TV and movies that plays on those higher end TVs and movie screens needed a monitor that would allow them to make that content on a monitor that would display that content properly. Since that market is Apple’s bread and butter, that was the logical direction to go.

    The AppleTV is not a DVR. It is not a TiVo. Apple executives have noted that repeatedly. It is not intended to replace a DVD player; your Mac can do that if you so wish, when connected to the AppleTV.

    It is intended to allow you to stream your content from your Mac to your TV, or stream some content from iTunes directly to the TV using your Mac as a conduit. content that can be pictures, movies, music videos, home movies, Keynote presentations, etc. Its HD is for caching streamed content or temporarily storing content for playing later. It is not meant to record broadcast media. It also, I am sure, contains the version of OS X that will run the box.

    Period, end of story. At least for now.

    Too many people criticize the AppleTV for not successfully competing as a DVR, or they complain that it isn’t one, then complain that it couldn’t compete as one anyway, by some weird twist of logic.


  3. Despite the name change, Apple is still a computer company. Apple TV, the iPod, and Airport Extreme are all just computers. They may look different on the outside, but inside there is a CPU, memory, sometimes a disk drive, a bunch of buses, an operating system and application software. How is that different from a Mac? There is little that one of Apple’s specialized computers can do that one of their general purpose computers cannot. Apple is still focused on selling computers. They’ve just figured out how to sell more than one to each person by selling computers with dedicated functions.

    Back in the late 1970s, computer labs at universities were filling up with breadbox sized PDP-11s with lots of cables running in and out of them. A friend of mine explained that the PDP-11 was the computer science equivalent of a piece of wire and that all of these little computers were network routers and printer drivers. Cisco systems makes its bread and butter selling the descendents of these little computers as routers, printer controllers and network storage solutions. Apple is making a business of selling similar, but more powerful, boxes as music players, network extenders and drivers for speakers and television sets.

    You could surely build your own network based speaker driver or television display controller using an old PC, but Apple includes great software with their version and does the system integration so that just about anyone can configure and use it. They even sell desktop and laptop computers. Once you have your media center nicely wired using Apple computers, you might even buy one of their general purpose machines.

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