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  • Is Apple TV the Bee’s Knees?

    September 8th, 2010

    I realize that Apple is being circumspect about the potential for the success of the latest iteration of Apple TV. Yes, there was that irony factor when Steve Jobs labeled it “one more hobby,” but hitting a home run is far from certain. Even at $99, the big question is whether millions and millions of customers will find it useful.

    At least with the previous Apple TV, there was a built in hard drive to store some of your stuff. That way, you didn’t have to worry about interruptions in the streaming process or, perish forbid, the occasion when your Internet connection went down.

    This is not a casual issue, folks.

    The other day, I was watching a Netflix stream on the family TV, and twice the signal dropped and had to be buffered again. Understand that I have a very fast broadband connection, and the Wi-Fi signal strength from home office to master bedroom is rock solid. I had my iPhone present, and the signal strength displayed was absolutely normal. So one expects the problem may have been due to a glitch on the Netflix servers.

    For the most part, my experiences with Netflix has been fairly positive. But the brief interruptions aren’t unusual, and sometimes I get a message that I’m offline. Yes, I grant this may also be due to a problem with my Blu-ray DVD player, which receives Netflix feed, but there are no obvious symptoms, other than the loss of a solid connection. Anyone else?

    Now it may be true that Apple’s own servers will run more efficiently with their movie and TV show streams. But think back to the HTML5 streaming video of Apple’s media event last week. I observed signal glitches, where the picture froze and some of the audio from Steve Jobs repeated itself.

    Before you suggest that’s also an artifact of my Internet setup, I was online with a colleague from France during that presentation, and he encountered similar symptoms. Well, maybe Apple’s servers were slammed, and don’t forget they have yet to deploy their new server farm in North Carolina. Once that’s in operation, perhaps we’ll see fewer signal saturation issues, assuming that was the actual cause of this problem.

    This isn’t to say that DVDs don’t occasionally exhibit hiccups too, but seldom. And usually a fast removal and a quick wipe of the readable surface with a soft cloth clears up that problem. Unfortunately, with most Blu-ray DVDs, the act of stopping or removing the disc means that you have to endure the introductory material, usually trailers of films long gone, and scroll to the point where you left off. This is one of the limitations of Blu-ray, as very few offer an auto-resume function. I wonder why this feature wasn’t inherited from the original DVD format.

    That being said, maybe Jobs has a point that Blu-ray is a “bag of hurt,” and won’t be supported on new Macs, at least for now. Apple is clearly betting on streaming video to ultimately dominate, and physical media to take a back seat.

    Now maybe he’s right on for the long haul. But right now, the streaming glitches I see — and I don’t think I am unique — make the experience less perfect.

    At the same time, I can see where simplifying Apple TV to the max may have an impact. People wanting to save on holiday presents might find the $99 price of admission not so daunting, and there is the cute factor. Put the tiny thing next to your flat panel TV, connect a couple of wires, and enjoy yourself; that is, assuming you have an account with iTunes or Netflix.

    I also expect that more entertainment companies will come onboard to join Fox and ABC to deliver your favorite TV fare at 99 cents per episode. That is also a casual price. Even if you buy just a few shows a month, that can add up among millions of potential customers to a fairly hefty profit for the networks who are already suffering big time from diminishing audiences and ad revenues.

    One criticism I have seen for Apple TV is the limit of 720p resolution, when Blu-ray, and some satellite Pay-Per-View selections, offer 1080p. That may seem a significant difference, except in the real world, where it takes a very large TV or close-in viewing to perceive the advantages of the higher resolution. Indeed, a large portion of network HD TV fare is at 720p, not 1080i, which is the best networks can actually deliver. It’s not a significant shortcoming, and Apple may have set that limitation to keep production costs down.

    While I’m not going to make a prediction that Apple TV will no longer be a hobby by 2011, it may well be that sales will improve enough to justify release of the upgraded version. But it’s not going to take over the living room, not until the current marketing scheme, with free or cheap set-top boxes, gets an overhaul. And that’s not about to happen anytime soon. Maybe Apple is going to have to build a TV set to gain the upper hand.

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