Thursday, May 31, 2007

How the Apple TV Should Work

HD means never having to say you're pixelated.

Since time immemorial, (or at least 1984), Apple's products have appeared to have been transported from some magical alternate universe, where things just work. Tiny details of interface design are pored over until the experience is seamless and hassle-free, the hardware is perfectly understated and simple, and often, such as in the case of the iPod in 2001, Apple products offer a solution to problems we didn't previously realize we even had. But the recent Apple TV has been released into the mortal world with a few feature flaws. And I'd like to see them fixed.

First, here's my brief and woefully oversimplified take on the development of our video habits...

The first phase of video consumption was the broadcast era. Advertising provided eyeballs for marketers and circuses for the masses of viewers, and everyone was mostly happy with the arrangement. There was a limited number of channels, you watched programs when they were scheduled and broadcast, and you watched what your neighbor and the rest of the country watched, because there wasn't a lot of content. If you missed The Honeymooners on Saturday night, brought to you by those generous sponsors at Buick, you were left out of the water cooler conversation on Monday.

After a few decades of this arrangement, content choices expanded with satellite television, with hundreds of cable channels. VCRs became popular, which made it possible to time-shift our video consumption for the first time.

Then, as along came digital video recorders, on-demand video from cable providers, streaming content on the internet, and Netflix. Today there are a lot of different ways to get video content from the world into the home, and a lot of differing standards and rules for the average consumer to learn.

Time shifting of television content, whether through a VCR or a DVR, has never been anything more than an interim step in the development of video distribution. It isn't a mature vision of digital video's potential. Using a set-top TiVo box to record video content is simply a bolt-on workaround to the decades-old arrangement proposed by content distributors that 'You watch the ads, we won't charge for the shows.'

Saving programs for later watching doesn't harm anyone, but when advertisements can be removed from the watching experience, then an imbalance is created, and the result is an economically unsustainable arrangement. Advertisers and content distributors don't get their precious targeted eyeballs, and viewers are annoyed with having to fast-forward through those wasted ads every few minutes as they watch their favorite content. This is clearly not what the future looks like. The traditional model of advertising-based broadcast television will pass, and with it, so will the need for TiVos and other DVRs.

So the broadcast era is over, because it's been killed by time-shifting technologies. But what's next, and how will we get there? There's a genuine chicken-and-egg dilemma involved in adjusting consumer watching behavior to this next phase of video consumption. You need paying viewers to make any service viable to content owners, and you need breadth and quality of video content to make it worthwhile for consumers. Which comes first?

The Apple TV represents, at its best, a shift to the next technological phase of video consumption habits, where the clutter of these different methods is replaced with a single seamless solution.

For the Apple TV to reach its full potential, it will need not simply to augment current methods of video distribution, but to replace them. Instead of being an additional box to tether to a videophile's stack of equipment, it will need to be the only box - a shelf-clearing solution that eliminates the need for DVRs, DVDs, digital cable, and satellite.

What can make this happen?

How It Is
The iTunes Store offers a selection of video files, including movies, TV shows, music videos and podcasts. With the exception of the podcasts, all video files are priced individually, just as music tracks are, and must be purchased outright to be viewed. Video resolution varies greatly.

How It Should Be

1. Subscriptions

First, video must be available on a subscription basis. Currently, Apple TV content from the iTunes Store is purchased on a per-title basis, just like music. But music and video, despite being downloadable files, are very different creatures.

Music lasts. It gains emotional weight depending on the time and life circumstances in which it's played, and becomes more enjoyable as it becomes more familiar. People enjoy building personal libraries of music as a representation of their own personality and taste, and use music as an accompaniment to other activities in life, whether at home, at work, on vacation, or in the car. For these reasons, it makes sense to buy music instead of renting.

But video is different. Video content usually requires undivided attention, can't be consumed simultaneously with many other activities. Most importantly of all, video content becomes progressively less interesting the more it's viewed. DVDs tend to languish on shelves, largely untouched after their first couple of viewings.

So, it is for these reasons that the Apple TV must be linked to a wide variety of content, all freely accessible for a monthly fee. Sure, Apple and the content owners would need to spend some time negotiating the pricing hurdles to make an amicable situation for everyone, but once these issues are resolved, we'd be in a much better place, and the userbase would be allowed to grow. Make tiered subscription levels if you need to, assign premium content status to select content if you need to; that's fine! But don't make me commit to paying a flat fee every time I decide to watch an episode of a program that I might not even like anyway.

2. Resolution
This is the biggest deal-breaker for the Apple TV in its current form, and is the main reason that I haven't bought one yet. There isn't much more to say about this; I know that there are technical challenges to making all content on the iTunes Store available in crystal-clear HD.

But as a consumer, I don't really care. I just know that I don't want pixelated content on my TV. Ever. Any video distribution method that gives me poor-quality video is a step backwards, and I don't have any patience for it.

3. Live content
Steve Jobs recently announced that YouTube content can now be accessed directly through the Apple TV. This is a huge good thing, but we're still talking baby steps. Until live sporting events and news broadcasts can be consumed, in high quality (see point above) then I'm still stuck with a cable box, lest I want to miss out on college football or ESPN 3's live coverage of hotdog-eating contests.

If Apple and the big sports agencies can negotiate the licensing rights to their broadcast content, and if the technical challenges of streaming HD video can be sorted out, then we consumers would have no more need for anything on the shelf under the television but the Apple TV.

Here's a great chance to make the long tail of obscure sporting events into a cash cow. If I want to watch something that isn't widely available, like a minor league baseball game or a sumo wrestling match, I don't even have the option of watching it. There's simply nobody to take my money for it, even if I'm willing to pay. The iTunes Store could be the perfect marketplace for obscure live content, and the Apple TV could be the pipeline by which it gets onto my television.

Sort all of these issues out, and we'd have simplicity, an easy interface, abundant, high-quality and fairly-priced content. And then that happy little world that Apple has been so good at creating for us in the past would be that much closer to reality.


Dan said...

Great Article! The company that can pick up this idea and implement it in a simplistic way has the potential to make Microsoft money!!!

Dan said...

My name is Dan and I'm a student at Michigan State. I'm very interested in this concept of internet based tv! I am in the process of making my own on-demand streaming tv website. I was wondering if you knew of any outlet or way to get more involved in this concept. I don't know if you will get this but if you do and feel the need to respond or have a few tips for me I would really appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

Just to clarify your point 2: You're concerned with the resolution of media currently available from the iTunes Store.

Apple TV itself beautifully renders HD video (1280 x 720p24).

Jason said...

I couldn't have said it better myself. Those are exactly the things that I wish Apple TV had. If it did, I would put my paycheck toward a new one immediately.

r0tt3n said...

Brilliant commentary - I say this with my tongue firmly planted against my cheek, as I have written editorials in the past expressing the exact same opinion. Regardless, your ideas were backed by a much more grounded approach to understanding the motivations from a consumer perspective, whereas I took the technological/business perspective that a) you can probably get more money out consumers and make them happier if you open the doors to all content at flat rates (for video AND audio), and b) as the world gets blanketed in cheap/free wifi, and handheld devices move closer towards commoditization (read: browsers with trivial outward-facing web servers for off-line synchronization purposes, and minimal local storage) it doesn't make sense to store any media anywhere, particularly when you have multiple devices that all want to access that content simultaneously. Kudos.

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