Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Amazingly Incompatible Apple TV

Apple TV is shipping, and suddenly the latest Apple product that no one really seemed to care about is all anyone can talk about, or blog about anyway. Case in point, here I go. I was perfectly willing to leave Apple TV well enough alone, it never quite looked like anything I'd be interested in but I didn't see anything inherently wrong with it, either, until now.

There are comparisons that can be made to the iPod with Apple TV, in particular with its integration with iTunes. Supposedly, its this tight integration that is going to make yet another tag team knockout in the digital entertainment arena, this time in our living rooms as opposed to, well, wherever the heck we go with our iPods. In terms of music, Apple TV will indeed do just this. It will replace our ear buds with whatever sweet little (nay, large) bass pumping, 'nad dropping sound system we have set up in our homes and get our complete music library, from all of our iTunes purchased DRM'd sing-alongs to our ripped collection of CD's, flowing readily through. That's all fine and dandy, but what about TV? This is, after all, Apple TV we're discussing, right?

Lets assume TV means anything you'd normally watch on your screen; primarily TV shows and movies (the whole photos-on-your-TV thing never really seemed to take off, did it?). Sure, Apple is ramping up the content drive on its iTunes store, so you can buy TV shows and movies which will stream to your HD screen via Apple TV. Similar to what many cable services are now offering; with iTunes and Apple TV you'll have your very own on demand service running, watching what you want, when you want, and that's all you'll ever pay for in terms of content. Apple TV owners, you can kiss your cable bill goodbye. That's swell, for casual viewing, anyway.

Coming back to iTunes music store for a moment, purchases made from there are usually pretty casual. Almost anyone with a real appreciation for a band will still go out and buy the CD if they want the whole album, and with TV and movies you can bet DVD sales will continue to work the same way. TV on iTunes has more of an appeal because each episode is available as its aired, while the complete package of a season won't come out on DVD for some time later, but movies are a tidy package, no staggering there. While with music you can take your purchased CD, rip its contents to your computer and then carry it around in your iPod or stream it to your Apple TV and wake up all your neighbors, TV shows and movies don't rip from DVD's... easily or legally anyway. This is the problem.

Statistically, most of the contents of a person's iPod is music they've purchased on CD that has been ripped to their computer. The iTunes store is a great accessory to the iPod, but its just that. Apple TV is essentially dependent on an accessory for its functionality. Enjoying content on an Apple TV will be like trying to dress yourself while staring at a closet full of clothes but only having access to the scarves, or perhaps more to the point the scarves you bought off the internet from that one store. All those DVD's you lovingly collected and own, and the ones you're still planning on collecting for years to come, will be incompatible with Apple TV.

Unless Steve Jobs has a yet-unveiled plan in place which will suddenly make ripping DVD's easy and legal (another finger pointing letter to be written, perhaps?), I see no real future for Apple TV. A tight integration with the iTunes store is not nearly enough to make this otherwise promising device as necessary and ubiquitous as the iPod so readily became. Which is a shame, because for some reason I still find myself really wanting one.

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