AppleTV: the next generation?

We’ve had an AppleTV in our house for about nine months now, and it really has changed the way my entire family views television. I am convinced that Apple has the wherewithal to make it a compelling story for a mass market. Much though I want to believe, Apple’s big steps in this direction at Macworld this week don’t necessarily have to include high definition. What’s most important is that people see that the AppleTV is the best-of-breed device for viewing digital content in the living room.

I’ve bought into the Apple picture whole-heartedly, so I get why things are the way they are (the MPEG-4 video codecs are good, the complexity is well-understood, and they are much more legitimately standards than other video formats found in the wild). Still, people want to be confident they can view content without bothering about the format. The potential consumers are right.

The iPod was helped immeasurably by MP3s that people had on their computer already and by CDs that people own. People expect, by drawing a parallel, that the AppleTV’s play is for downloaded DiVX-video and DVDs that they own. Ultimately, the winner in this race will be the player who can make that back-door content work seamlessly for people.

I suspect Apple got into the AppleTV to help the MPEG-4-encoded content (read: iPod) ecosystem along. It’s been a success already, in converting YouTube to H.264. However, it draws too much attention to its own store as being the odd man out. Even though the iTunes store’s content is based on an international standard with a much more open pedigree than Windows Media, it appears to the outsider to be a closed ecosystem: the only convenient way to get video onto the AppleTV appears to be through the iTunes Store.

Although I use the iTunes store a lot, I get video from a lot of other sources, from downloading .flv’s and .avi’s, to DVDs that I own, to content from my digital camera or mobile phone. VisualHub worked well for many months, but I eagerly embraced the Turbo.264 when it was released (and now that it reliably works on all content I throw at it, the workflow is easier). I do recognise that I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid: I mention “workflow” when talking about the AppleTV. That’s a sign that getting video onto the AppleTV isn’t good enough yet. The perception that the iTunes Store is the only convenient way of obtaining video isn’t that far from reality.

Apple is sure to introduce a new way or ways to get iTunes Store content onto your AppleTV within fewer than 24 hours of me writing this. I’m a staunch AppleTV defender, but thinking about it, the critics are right: there have to be more and easier ways of getting your content onto the AppleTV.

While the “easiest” way would be to get Perian‘s Windows-centric codec support onto the AppleTV (and allow iTunes to understand and sync that content as well), I don’t think we’re going to see that so soon. It’s an aphorism that broader choice of content will win over devices that restrict that choice. However, I think that because (1) no one else provides the same compelling device interface, (2) going with bastardised standards (like Xvid) is too distasteful to Apple, (3) it steps outside of the iPhone/iPod ecosystem, which is more important than the AppleTV on its own, and (4) it has to toe the line on piracy with Hollywood, Apple will not make a play for expanded codecs until there is serious competition.

Apple is almost sure to make it easier to buy content directly onto the AppleTV. Is it time to tap the other source of freely available content and enable PVR capabilities on the AppleTV? That has the possibility of working, because there’s the possibility of getting reliable metadata into the mix.

Back in 2002, I gave some lectures to students on multimedia metadata, and waved my first generation iPod. “I don’t know if you’ve heard of this device yet,” I said, “but it runs on metadata. All of the menus, scanning through by artist, album, or genre, depend on metadata to find your music.” The same can be said of the AppleTV, as well. Electronic Programme Guides provide the link between broadcast content and getting content metadata covered. If you want to evaluate the strength of possible methods for adding video to the AppleTV, look to the metadata.

So, what does that mean to me in a couple hours? Rental content, content direct to the AppleTV, and the option of an interface to digital television? Likely. High Definition content amongst the content available on the store? WANT. But it’s not as likely as I once thought, sadly.