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  • So Should the Apple TV Become a Real Apple TV?

    June 23rd, 2011

    So the published reports have it that Apple moved roughly two million of the second generation Apple TVs as of the end of the last quarter. So it appears that, in the scheme of things, Apple’s latest attempt to find a place in the sun — or your living room — next to existing set top boxes is having a modicum of success. Not too shabby.

    At the same time, the first Google TV products, hobbled by software defects and other issues, haven’t fared so well. You don’t hear much about them these days, although it’s also true that Google is continuing to work out the kinks and make their vision — a combination of WebTV capabilities and a TV remote, more or less — count for something. May they will succeed, though I was skeptical of the concept from the outset.

    As far as Apple TV goes, the current model is a credible performer. I’ve actually used it at times in place of Netflix for getting the latest and greatest movie releases. Seems Netflix was hoodwinked by the movie companies to hold off distribution of DVDs of new releases for 30 days to get more current movies to stream. This leaves a gap filled by the cable and satellite companies, not to mention iTunes.

    Although Apple TV is limited to 720p resolution, compared to 1080p on a Blu-ray disc, the difference is actually not that serious on a typical large screen flat panel TV unless you look real close; just a hair less sharp and a bit more grainy. That said, I fully expect Apple will expand 1080p support to Apple TV in the next generation, just as they’ve done with the iPad 2, and probably the forthcoming iPhone 5, or whatever it’s going to be called. Of course, Apple would also have to offer the higher resolution version for sale or rent, and that would mean a much larger file to download. Maybe you’ll have a choice.

    In any case, Apple TV, though relatively easy to use, has severe limitations. The no-frills remote operates in a very narrow angle, meaning you have to point it just so at the unit for it to respond. Also, the controls strike me as awkward, meaning that rummaging through the menus doesn’t feel near as fluid as it should be. I suppose Apple could revise the software well enough, and even add more movie services from which to download. But the remote transceiver system requires work. Maybe I should see if I can get my Logitech Harmony universal remote to recognize and function with Apple TV, but if the limited coverage area is a limitation of the device itself, it won’t do much good.

    All that can be fixed in future versions, no doubt, but how is Apple supposed to expand the market when you can get pretty decent set top boxes from the cable and satellite companies for next to nothing? Sometimes they come free with special promotions. This is the dilemma Steve Jobs clearly recognizes. Apple TV, in its present form, is not the answer; it’s a holding action designed to give Apple a little more time to devise a better solution.

    One possibility is to license Apple TV technology to TV makers, which would integrate that functionality and hardware into their home-brewed remotes. I suppose Apple’s unique interface would still be present, accessed via a single button on the remote. For all practical purposes, it would operate in the same fashion as the current Apple TV; your Wi-Fi hookup would access streamed content from iTunes and your iOS gadgets. But is there any incentive for TV makers to do that? They already offer third-party video or “connected TV” features even in some of the lower cost models. Netflix, YouTube and other services are there. Having iTunes would be nice, but would that be sufficient cause to sign a pact with Apple and pay a license fee for every unit sold?

    The ultimate solution may be for Apple to do what Bose — the well-known speaker manufacturer — has done, which is to build their own enhanced high-end TV. There have been occasional rumors of just such a product for several years. Current speculation has it that the “real” Apple TV will arrive in time for the holiday season, meaning you’ll be able take home a high definition set from your nearest Apple Store or reseller.

    But other than bundling Apple TV and adding a superior interface for settings, just what can Apple bring to the table? I mean, once you do the initial setup of your new TV, and I bet most customers stick with the default (too bright) settings, your daily encounter is limited to your set top box, and the interface they provide. Sure, I suppose Apple could license access to the cable and satellite providers, using an iOS-flavor interface to access the content you want. But just delivering a better programming menu doesn’t necessarily mean great success. Witness the struggles of TiVO, which has had a decidedly better hardware and software solution, but these days seems to be making do with licensing fees or, for example, the money won from that lawsuit against Dish Network.

    So far as the hardware is concerned, TVs are very much commodity products. Can Apple deliver a better picture, more compelling 3D, than the current models? Would their unique software allow for more accurate color, adaptable settings that depend on your lighting situation and the age of the unit, and other enhancements? Would there be an integrated home theater audio system, shades of Bose? What about 3D without the glasses, and an enhanced gaming experience? Well, there are those Apple patent filings to chew over.

    More to the point, how much can Apple charge for such a beast? These days, high-end 3D plasma TVs, with 50-inch or 51-inch screens, can be had for $1,500-$2,000. Bose charges $5,349 for a 46-inch LCD set featuring so-called “invisible” speakers that simulate surround sound. It doesn’t make sense to me either, and unless Apple can deliver something meaningful — and affordable — to a heavily saturated market, it’s hard to see a place for an Apple branded TV set.



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