Last year when Steve Jobs announced Apple TV at Macworld 2007, I wasn't impressed. I expressed my displeasure at the fact that the media was basically giving a free pass to a product that I predicted would be an overpriced failure. My words provoked the wrath of many angry, defensive Apple-lovers. But Apple TV was a failure, and by Macworld 2008 Jobs admitted that the company's expensive "hobby" had failed to catch on. He said, "It's not what people really wanted… So we're back with Apple TV, take 2."
Apple TV 2.0 allows direct downloads from the Internet, Amazon Unbox-style, meaning no computer required. iTunes now offers movie rentals. In addition, Apple TV is less expensive than it was last year and includes cute new features like Flickr compatibility. But will it be the little white box that convinces people to give up their DVD players the way the iPod made them ditch their Discmen? In a word, no. Follow the Continue link to read where Apple messed up this time.
With Apple TV 2.0, Apple has mucked up its reputation for having a simple interface with fine print that few potential buyers will take the time to try to figure out. They'll just take the restrictions as a sign that it's still too early to commit to this convoluted digital stuff. While instant gratification is convenient, draconian rules are not. That iTunes only has 1,000 films to Netflix's 90,000 is another very noticeable shortcoming.
But is it for high-end users, early adopters who have spent thousands of dollars on their 42-inch+ plasmas and LCDs? Not really. Apple's promising those customers a limited number of HD movie rentals (none for purchase) at 720p resolution. We can argue all day about whether 1080p images are really better than 720p, but it's clear that users who purchase the most expensive gear do care. Meanwhile, all of iTunes television downloads are in SD, even though most conventional TV shows come in HD for free over the airwaves. This means that if I purchase an episode of Lost on Apple TV it won't even be the right shape for my television, never mind as high quality as an HD broadcast.
All this is to explain that Apple TV has no obvious audience: the box is not made for cheap TVs, but iTunes isn't ready yet to deliver on image quality for expensive ones either.
In a recent interview Bill Gates said that what he admires about Apple is that it can introduce fully "polished" products with great "usability." I agree. Which is why Apple TV has remained such a surprise to me: Jobs's goal with Apple TV 2.0 was to make the product more intuitive and easier to use, but it's not at all clear that he has. It may turn out that the product works beautifully (our reviewer loved v. 1.0), but with no ideal audience and such a small variety of DRM-strapped content v 2.0 seems about as likely to go mainstream and introduce downloadable content into the country's living rooms as last year's model.