The new Apple TV

Steve Jobs announced the new Apple TV today and it’s just about everything I wished for. It’s small, eliminates storage hassles and supposedly runs much cooler than the current model. I was way off on iOS apps, but overall I’m happy with it. Here’s an overview of what the new Apple TV does, what it doesn’t and what the future could bring.

My chief complaint about the outgoing model was the cost. I had a hard time spending $2.99 to watch a show that could be found online for free. With this update, Apple has dropped the price to $0.99. That’s great, but not I wanted: a $X-per-month subscription that provided unlimited streaming of available content. That won’t happen any time soon for many reasons, so instead Apple joins the list of providers I’m paying for similar (and often the very same) content.

The evolution of the computer and TV into a single device will be slow and difficult. We’re talking about changing very old models of behavior, habits and revenue…lots of revenue. Right now, I send Comcast, Hulu Plus and Netflix a monthly check. They each provide something unique that I’d hate to give up. Comcast provides live pro sports. Netflix offers streaming access to obscure movies across all iOS devices (and now TV). Hulu Plus is super convenient with 3G support and looks great on my iPad. Finally, Apple TV blows away the experience of renting from a brick-and-mortar store.

Yet there’s a lot of overlap. For instance, I’m now paying Comcast, Hulu and Apple to see “The Office.” I’m paying Netflix and Apple for many of the same movies. You can’t help but feel that you’re getting ripped off somewhere along the line. [2. No, I’m not being forced to subscribe to Netflix, Hulu Plus or Apple TV] Additionally, consider Kohl Vinh’s exlpanation of the “disaster” that our living rooms have become:

“…a sprawling, schizophrenic mess of rat king wires hanging off the back of inscrutable devices sending cryptic signals to one another under the auspices of an alphabet-soup of initialisms and branded nomenclature — HDMI, DVI, component video, Blu-Ray, progressive and interlaced resolutions, Dolby, DTS, etc. — and that’s not even mentioning the terminology that intersects with personal computing.”

The Apple TV will play its role very well I’m sure, but it’s not a fix to the overall problem.

My other complaint about the old model was the huge amounts of storage that purchases required. Apple has eliminated that issue by restricting the new Apple TV to streaming rentals from Apple’s servers, a home computer with iTunes content or from Netflix. I’ll be the Netflix support alone will sell a lot of these things.

Finally, the hardware looks great. It’s small, cool and without a hard drive. It’ll blend in beautifully with people’s black components or even live out of sight for those with the iOS Remote app. Apple knocked it out of the park with the design.

I was dead about it running iOS apps, at least for now. An interesting tweet from John Gruber all but confirms that it runs iOS, and we know it’s also got an A4 chip. Maybe we’ll see apps in the future.

All in all it’s a solid update that will do its job well I’m sure. Not a solution to the mess that our living rooms have become, but certainly a welcome citizen.

[Thanks to Shawn Blanc for pointing out Kohl Vinh’s article]

What I want from the new Apple TV [Updated]

Today Bloomberg suggested that Apple is prepping $0.99 TV show rentals. That’s half off the current cost of a single episode, which is great, but I’d still rather abandon the a-la-carte model for a subscription service.

Right now, the Apple TV has two main flaws. First, it’s a front end for the iTunes Store. If you want to watch an episode of a TV show, you must buy it. If I missed an episode of The Office and I want to catch up, I’ll be “punished” to the tune of  2 dollars just to see what I’ve missed. In that case, I’ll go over to Hulu and watch it for free. Note that I’m glad to buy shows I love. It’s just this scenario that’s a hassle.

The other issue is the tremendous amount of storage that’s required once you start buying TV shows and movies. I’ve got shows and movies spread across several disks. If I’m traveling, I’ve got to seach my Mac and external archive disks to find the shows I want to take with me [5. A first-world problem, I admit.]. Also, it seems like iTunes wants to sync with my Apple TV almost every time I launch it. All of these issues could be eliminated with a subscription-based streaming service.

I’ve been waiting for Apple to announce an Apple TV subscription service a year. My idea was that I could stream any TV show or movie in Apple’s library to any approved device, like the iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, Mac or Apple TV for $X per month. That way I’m not charged for each individual episode, and the cloud storage would free up huge amounts of hard drive space. I’d be thrilled if my entire video purchase history was made availabe for streaming on day one.

One of the major hurdles, of course, will be from the cable providers as Apple assumes the role of distributor. Another will be the networks themselves. How do they generate ad revenue if I’m watching a show on my iPhone? Engadget has hinted at a potential solution.

Engadget reported that the new Apple TV (or “iTV”) will run iOS and, we assume, apps. By creating their own apps, unique to the Apple TV, the distributors and content providers will retain full control over what’s made available. ABC has a nice player out for the iPad right now. Hulu Plus is also rather nice, despite some flaws ($10 per month plus ads?). Also, Apple will continue to get paid and I get the cloud-based streaming that I’ve been after. Perhaps the cable companies and networks could get a cut of the subscription fee, or perhaps they could push ads. Perhaps a higher fee would eliminate ads. The point is there are enough options to make everyone happy [4. Scott McNulty makes a point about how developers get paid and why ad revenue alone won’t cut it for cable companies. He’s right, and unfortunately I don’t have an answer.].

Finally, let’s consider the new hardware. Removing the hard drive would make it considerably smaller. Replacing the IR remote with an iPhone or iPad app would eliminate the need for a direct line of sight to control the thing, so it could live anywhere [3. You’d probably need to keep the remote for those who don’t own another iOS device, but the option to hide it completely would be there.]. Lastly, killing the hard drive would reduce the size and the amount of heat the thing puts out. The current model gets hot.

With iOS, the time is right for Apple’s hobby to become a full-on product. I’ve got my fingers crossed and credit card ready.

Update: Ross Rubin agrees at Engadget: “…if Apple really wanted to avoid subscriptions per se, it could offer pre-paid access as it has for 3G on the iPad, with a lower fee offering a limited number of TV episode rentals per month and a higher number offering unlimited rentals during the month.” Good idea.