Steve Jobs and other Apple executives famously referred to the Apple TV as a hobby

Steve Jobs and other Apple executives famously referred to the Apple TV as a hobbyPhoto: Stephen Shankland/CNET

In its present form, the Apple TV is a damp squib. But despite current limitations, Apple could still have something important programmed for TV, says Seb Janacek.

I bought an Apple TV last December, brought it home and plugged it in under the TV. It’s been gathering dust ever since.

It’s a typically graceful Apple product: sleek, well engineered, simple to use and diminutive, naturally. The software is elegant and usable, the remote reassuringly unfettered by arcane buttons and hieroglyphics.

It’s silent, unobtrusive and works very well. The streaming is very smooth, it upscales impressively, the pictures are crisp and the colours deep. The Remote app for the iPhone or iPad works brilliantly.

The problem with the Apple TV is that it isn’t that useful in its current form and with its current content platform. It’s also very focused on the US market. There’s little point in it coming loaded with Major League Baseball highlights if they aren’t of interest or indeed understandable to anyone outside the US. Movie content is woefully limited.

It’s also dependent on streaming your own content, pictures, music or movies from your home Mac with iTunes switched on. This point seems a minor quibble unless your Mac is in the loft of your house. It’s a little thing but it matters especially if you’ve just sat down.

The Apple TV also plays a limited number of video codecs, namely MP4, which is infuriating if you’ve already converted many of your DVDs to MKV files.

It still feels incomplete as a product. Steve Jobs and other Apple executives famously referred to the Apple TV as a hobby for years and to the best of my knowledge they may still do.

Apple TV not yet for the serious mainstream

While into its second iteration and admittedly neat, it’s not yet one for the serious mainstream. I couldn’t see myself recommending it to my parents as I do with other iOS devices. It feels like the job is only half done but there’s a great deal of potential for the little black box.

The inelegant streaming model – turn on Mac, connect to network, turn on iTunes – will become a moot point when Apple does indeed unveil some kind of cloud-based iTunes streaming service.

Apple executives were reported as announcing…

 

A more fully realised Apple TV concept could draw on lessons from the way Apple is marketing the iPad

A more fully realised Apple TV concept could draw on lessons from Apple’s marketing of the iPadPhoto: Donald Bell/CNET

…at February’s annual shareholder meeting that the massive North Carolina datacentre was nearly ready for launch and would host iTunes and MobileMe services.

A step further would be to integrate the Apple TV function into an Apple-branded television set.

I was in a Curry’s storeroom on the weekend, browsing among the vast number of televisions and was struck by one thing – they all look the same, just like tablet computers.

It’s largely a medium defined by technical specs – 1080p, HDMi and 3D, for example. There’s nothing compelling about them if you don’t care about tech specs, and who does these days?

There’s little I see that differentiates what these things can do based on user experience. It’s a commodity-driven business with a handful of leading vendors, including LG, Samsung, Sony and Toshiba. And they all look the same in the shop, especially in the store when they are all playing the same content.

You only have to look at the way Apple is marketing the iPad to understand the potential of a more fully realised Apple TV concept.

Functionality rather than features

One of the things Apple got so right with the iPad was focusing on communicating what the device could do and not even mentioning the technical specifications. You can choose different storage options and 3G or wi-fi and that’s about it.

Apple already has a content ecosystem, credit card details, experience of streaming media, a massive datacentre waiting to do something, good relationships with media companies, a background in developing large-body, high-quality computers with flat-screen displays and a history of making mega component deals.

What is the likelihood of an Apple television set? I’m not holding my breath for an imminent launch but it’s an intriguing possibility if the cloud-based iTunes model does indeed herald in a new age of media consumption.

Further, as the content ecosystem expands to include more studios and more media types, including apps, then it’s tempting to look at the possible convergence of Apple TV, iTunes and an integrated consumer television, just as I expect the iOS and Mac OS X platforms to come closer together at the Worldwide Developer Conference in early June.

An Apple TV in every living room. As potent a sales slogan as “a computer on every desk and in every home”.