The Quandary of the Apple Television

Join us as we take yet another walk through recent Apple history and set the stage for the imminent arrival of the Apple television. We’ll take a look at how Steve Jobs went from denying that televisions and computers would ever merge to personally fueling the fire for the next great Apple media frenzy.

You Watch Television to Turn Your Brain Off

“We don’t think that televisions and personal computers are going to merge. We think basically you watch television to turn your brain off, and you work on your computer when you want to turn your brain on.” – Steve Jobs, 2004

Every time someone discusses anything regarding Apple making the successful jump to our living rooms, I can’t help but think of the quote above from the February, 2004 edition of MacWorld. To be fair, Steve was no stranger to public denial that Apple was working on a project when in fact that’s exactly what they were doing. However, this seems a little more genuine than that. Beyond simply downplaying the idea that Apple would work on a product for televisions, he attacks the entire idea of computing being brought to the realm of TV.

Here he openly admits that Apple at the time simply didn’t see these two lines of products merging because they had fundamentally different purposes. So was Steve just flat out wrong or were the rules of the game changed somewhere along the way?

From my perspective, I would say the latter. While the PC has always been the home of gamers, the Mac historically wasn’t a place for entertainment so much as it was an outlet for creativity. This is why Steve makes the comment about coming to the computer to turn on your brain. However, there’s been a major shift in the last decade that has brought the home computer to the forefront of the entertainment industry. The iPod and iTunes, the ubiquity of DVD players in computers, the rise of YouTube and its subsequent clones, and iTunes’ entry into video were all major pushes that turned the Mac and indeed all computers into media consumption devices. Suddenly, it seemed the creative types were outnumbered by people who were indeed turning on their computers to turn off their brains.

More recent products like Hulu and Netflix streaming have cemented this notion. Myself and many of my peers have abandoned cable and even free network television altogether in favor of 100% Internet-powered media. Why pay a monthly fee for tons of channels and programming that I don’t need playing at times of the day when I can’t watch when I can use my web browser to access the content I love whenever I have the time to watch it?

The Apple TV

In September of 2006, nearly three years after the quote above, Steve announced a project known as “iTV” which would later be renamed “Apple TV.” It seemed that the wizards at Infinite Loop weren’t quite as hesitant to break into this market as Steve indicated (remember that three years is an eternity in Apple’s world).

By March of 2007, the Apple TV was shipping and just around a year ago in September, 2010, Apple released the second generation of the device. In the past few years, the Apple TV has always felt like an odd mix in the Mac hardware lineup. Coming from a company with a clearly defined strategy for every single product, the Apple TV seems all over the board. With each major software and hardware update, Apple keeps announcing that they’re “rethinking” the strategy and focus behind the Apple TV and finally getting it right. However, critical spectators still disagree with that statement.

From the MacBook Air to the iPad, Apple’s products always have clear allure over the competition. The one place where this isn’t true is the Apple TV. Sure, it lets you view pictures and watch movies, tune into Netflix and check out the latest funny cats on YouTube, but so does everything else these days. Half the television sets in a given electronics store now perform these functions without an external box and if you don’t have one of those televisions, your XBox, Playstation and even Wii will perform many or all of these functions.

“A win for Apple is the iPhone or iPad, a product that changes everything in its genre forever. The Apple TV simply doesn’t seem to fit this description.”

Connection to the iTunes store and access to streaming content from a desktop or iOS device are clear competitive advantages, but they haven’t proved enough to bring the Apple TV into the realm of a must-have device. I’m the biggest Mac evangelist there is and I never find myself telling anyone how much better their life would be with an Apple TV as I do with just about every other Apple device that I own.

Directly following the initial Steve Jobs quote in the same article was this statement from Jobs, “most of these products that have said, ‘Let’s combine the television and the computer!’ have failed. All of them have failed.” Apple obviously set out to break this trend, but I’m not sure they have. Though the Apple TV isn’t necessarily a failure, it has seen decent sales numbers in the growing millions, I’m not sure it’s fair to categorize it as a major win for the company either. A win for Apple is the iPhone or iPad, a product that changes everything in its genre forever. The Apple TV simply doesn’t seem to fit this description.

“I Finally Cracked It”

As soon as the iPad and its successor made their way into the hands of the masses, we all began to wonder what was next. Many leading experts went to far as to predict that Apple would cool it for a while in the innovation game and just sit back and soak up the profit from a decade of tech leadership. I’ve always thought that this notion is completely against everything we know about Apple’s culture. I’m not sure they could sit still if they tried.

This leads everyone but the skeptics looking for Apple’s next big thing, and many have known for a long time that the Apple TV was a prime target. This idea was cemented when Steve Jobs’ biographer, Walter Isaacson, recently spilled the beans about Steve’s inability to prevent himself from gushing over his desire to completely rethink the television. Steve spoke of an iCloud integrated and extremely easy to use television. “It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.”

This statement has sent the rumor mill into an uproar. After the release of the iPhone 4S, the popular opinion is that “the simplest user interface you could imagine” is something along the lines of Siri’s human-like voice activated functionality. The combination of well-implemented natural speech recognition with television was a distant dream for the future only a year ago, now it seems inevitable.

Steve’s Final Sleight of Hand

You’ve likely heard much or even all of the information above. Everyone now thinks that a true Apple television, not simply a set top box, is on its way. The hype is so widespread that you might be already thinking that we’re bound to see this product hit sometime in the very near future. However, the key piece of information that hasn’t sunk in for most people is the timeline for this thing.

Remember when the iPad rumors started? We endured years of whispers about an Apple tablet. In the end these proved true but not before everyone grew nearly averse to any piece of speculation as a result of complete over saturation of wild theories, fake product mockups and even impressive video hoaxes. Welcome back folks, because we’re entering this very stage with the Apple television.

Incredibly optimistic (and perhaps naive) claims foresee this product launching around this time next year. Realistic timelines put it arriving in 2013. The Isaacson leak is likely a carefully calculated ploy to get the press into a manic state, searching daily for new bits of speculation that will ultimately result in a euphoric frenzy on launch day. Absolutely no one is better at this than Apple and I smile when I think about how Steve pulled it off one last time, incredibly placing himself as the source of the information to make sure it was taken seriously. We always wondered if these types of leaks were intentional Apple trickery, now the answer to that question seems clear.

As I look forward to what is without a doubt one of the last great projects that Steve Jobs was able to influence directly, I will resist annoyance at the inevitable wave of false information and inflated hype that we’re already seeing the crest of in favor of a final hat tip to the only man I’ve ever seen with the ability to turn a nerd-only realm of rumors into mainstream news. Bring on the era of the Apple television, I can’t wait.