Musings on AppleTV Take 2

After seeing the appropriate portion of the Macworld Expo keynote presentation by Steve Jobs, I have some thoughts about the revamped AppleTV.

First off, I’m pretty happy about it. I’m very pleased that the “version 2” is just a software upgrade. It was pretty clear that the original hardware was over-specced for what it did at the beginning, so I bought early with a lot of confidence that the hardware would last. (Subsequent teardown reports that suggested tiny margins on the hardware increased that confidence.)

It’s interesting to note that the UK prices haven’t changed. At £199 and £269, Apple is treating the UK AppleTV as a niche product. If you know you want it, you’ve probably already gotten it. As soon as movies are available internationally, then I would expect the price to go down a bit. You gotta have the blades ready to go, if you want to sell cheaper razors…

Looking at the demos available online, it’s unclear where the “source” menu has gone. We have a 40GB unit, and when Rosemary or I are feeling in an aimless mood, we’ll mount our 500GB iTunes library and browse that for inspiration. I worry somewhat that streaming from arbitrary sources might be compromised in the new software.

The store integration is very impressive, and very inviting. It’s what’s needed to make rentals work: highly visual, presenting a multitude of choices, and accommodating to impulse buys (or rentals). It looks like a model that all others should follow.

However, the AppleTV now appears to be little more than a portal for the iTunes Store. The menu system puts an extraordinary amount of attention on the Store, and pushes one’s own content to the bottom. It seems odd that streaming content over the internet is given such priority after the first version: Apple’s view always seemed to be, “Don’t trust the internet’s quality of service, but you can stream over the LAN.” LAN-based content, as far as I can tell, seems to be hidden.

I always viewed Podcasts as a back door for (free) content onto the AppleTV. They are the “other easy way” to get content pushed (automatically) into the living room. Before, entering arbitrary URLs into iTunes (perhaps via a clickable itpc: link) was about equivalent to subscription via Apple’s iTunes Podcast directory. Now, via the AppleTV, the iTunes store solidifies its position as an orifice to podcasts. It looks inviting, instantly gratifying, and well done, but it makes Apple more of a gatekeeper to free content.

The fact that high definition finally makes its appearance is exciting to me. It’s not how I originally imagined it would be, but everything I’ve read suggests that SVC scalable video encoding isn’t ready for prime time yet. It may make an appearance, once hi-def moves to a purchase model/off the AppleTV exclusively.

There has been some speculation on why hi-def is AppleTV only. Some think it might be due to piracy concerns by the studios, but I think there are technology reasons as well. For 5.1 surround sound, there is no reliable, universal way for Mac or PC users to enjoy content encoded that way. High-Definition video cannot be played out on any of the iPhone/iPod family, either, so simply placing that content into iTunes creates a confusing situation (“this content is not compatible with your iPod”) for those much-beloved users. In other words, hi-def is AppleTV-only because the technology isn’t ready to accommodate the other devices in the ecosystem. I’ve outlined the ways it could happen, eventually, but for now, a closed, black box solution is sufficient for content that will not have a lifespan beyond thirty days.

I’m really eager to see the updated software myself, but I do worry that Apple may have made itself too much of a gatekeeper to content in the rush to give people the movie rentals they wanted.