5 Tons of Flax

What the deuce!

Apple TV and the death of television

Posted by Jon on 30 May, 2007

There are few lessons more important in trying to predict where technology (and its social effects) are going than to understand how completely wrong almost all popular mass media is at making predictions. Guessing the opposite of PC Magazine is a good practice.

Fortune has an article up about the Apple TV. Basically, they say its a flop and compare it to Microsoft’s Zune. First, a disclaimer: I own some stock in Apple. Of course I’d like them to do well, but I base my investment decisions on whether I like the products.

What Apple gets that so many other companies don’t is more significant than simply design or good interfaces. They seem to understand that they can make the future, not simply respond to existing demands; shape the market instead of reacting to it. The iPod, Apple TV, the iPhone are all products of this understanding.

Fortune (and other sources I’ve read in the past) complains that Apple TV’s remote can’t control a DVD player; that the quality of movies purchased from iTunes Store is poor, particularly because you need an HDTV; that you can’t draw on multiple computers’ media collections; that there are limitations to the formats that can be played (namely limiting you to Apple’s store); and that you can’t download things directly to the Apple Tv but must work through a linked computer. I’ve also read, in other sources, complaints that Apple TV doesn’t have its own DVD player, and that it won’t function like a Tivo.

Some of these are legitimate complaints, but some of them just don’t “get it.”

The range of formats, and the inability to download directly to the Apple TV, are drawbacks. Nonetheless, they are basically software limitations (Apple TV has a network connection) and the number of people hacking the Apple TV suggests that they will be bypassed, if they haven’t already. Moreover, much like iTunes Music Store’s offering of AAC music instead of MP3 or Ogg, they aren’t really limitations on the average non-techie who plans to get their media (at least initially) from iTunes. Also, the HDTV requirement isn’t correct: Apple’s website notes that the Apple TV has component video out.

The real problem with Fortune and other’s analysis is that it doesn’t see where media is headed in the near future. With programs like Handbrake, you can rip my DVDs in the same way you rip CDs to make MP3s. The demand for storage space is greater, but hard drives are growing rapidly. iTunes store lets you get TV series and movies without the hassle of ripping, and the quality constraints are pretty clearly a matter of bandwidth limitations that should eventually dissipate.

Basically, all your media becomes purely digital, living on the harddrive and not on a CD or DVD. This means your computer (using iTunes software) manages it all. The Apple TV is nothing more than one particular type of interface, for home theater use, just like iPods are a portable interface, or the iTunes software itself is an interface when using your computer.

The deeper implication, that Apple seems to understand, is the death of television.

Think about the types of programs television offers; they can be classified into a few catagories, not on genre, but on issues of time; namely, prerecorded or not. In this model a DVR is redundant; why wait for a cable company or broadcast station to choose to air something and record it? Anything prerecorded can simply be downloaded, whether from iTunes or some other source; manage it in software, view it through whichever interface is most convenient or desirable.

Television will last longer in “live” productions, especially sports, because of demand and bandwidth limitations causing quality problems. But once the event has occurred, there is no reason for it not to be treated like any other pre-recorded show.

Basically, television as we’ve known it is dying. Apple TV is getting people used to the idea of interacting with tv shows, movies, photos – everything media – in the way we’ve gotten used to interacting with music. It’s important to note that with MP3s, early adopters were using them (ripped or downloaded) for a while before the iPod, and even buying MP3 players. But the iPod and iTunes made it easy to convert all music to the hard drive and manage it, even for people who don’t care about tech. The iTunes store takes even the ripping out the equation. Large libraries of movies to buy, and high video quality, however, demand a market that relates to video in the way we’ve come to relate to audio; Apple TV lets the average Joe do that, and that’s how it will kill traditional television.

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