Apple TV Critics Are Not Looking at the Big Picture

| Editorial

The frenzy of HDMI dongles on the market or just announced reveals that Apple's competitors are taking the easy road and don't understand what customers really want in the world of TV.

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It all starts with the opportunity to leverage from standardized silicon components from Asia. Throw together an HDMI + HDCP chip with Wi-Fi, some control logic and package it all in an inexpensive USB dongle and, hopefully, the maker has easy inroads into a customer's TV life.

For example, see "March Of The Google Chromecast Look-Alikes."

Of course, what's really going on is that each tech giant, Amazon, Apple and Google plus some others like Roku wants to sell its own unique brand of Internet-based TV to make a dumb TV smarter and offer salivating cord-cutting opportunities.

Dangling Dongles

With these devices, several difficulties emerge right away. For example:

  • Is all the customer's favorite content available?
  • Of not, must it be supplemented from other sources, offsetting the initial low-cost benefits of the dongle?
  • Does it support certain hardware features such as AirPlay? If not, are its own services problematic and perhaps not compatible with Apple products?
  • HDMI dongles that plug into a TV directly and not an HDMI hub or Receiver are limited to the speakers built into the TV, generally bypassing a home theater's better speakers. (Unless the user is fairly savvy and the system supports special optical audio connections.)
  • How many of these dongles does one need, and why should one have to constantly switch between sources to view specific content? And then one must look for the right remote to do that switching.
  • Each new dongle requires an account and password, and personal information can potentially be tied to everything watched.
  • What happens when a new HDMI dongle hits the market and the home system is out of HDMI inputs? Alternatively, if the customer wants to stick to just one or two, to whom do they owe their TV loyalty?

Loyalty

Speaking of loyalty, this is what it's all about with these dongles isn't it? In earlier times, the question was whether the viewer's loyalty was with a cable provider — hopefully there was a choice, but perhaps not so much these days. Or perhaps loyalty was with a satellite provider.

Now, in the era of Internet TV, the tech giants want to be the favored provider, and they see the HDMI dongle as their own special opportunity to lock the customer into their unique ecosphere of content. This is not technical progress, it's short-term quarterly earnings focus.

Behinds the scenes, what's driving this is the desire by the content providers to parcel out the goods to make sure that no one tech giant can dominate the market -- all the while maximizing their revenues. We've all heard stories about the difficulties Apple had locking up enough content deals to make a next generation TV system so compelling that the company could not only overwhelm the cable/satellite providers but also get a leg up on the Internet competition.

By and by the providers themselves may be eager to get into the game, given how easy it is. What's next? An HBO dongle? An NFL dongle?

The HDMI dongle is basically taking us from the frying pan to the fire.

Is this the Droid we were looking for?
Image credit: Google

Solving the Real Problem

The rush towards HDMI dongles doesn't do much to address the TV viewing experience. In some cases, the customers have to provide their own smartphone and download a remote control app. The content appears in the exact form the content provider wishes it to appear, and so it's merely a conduit to X amount of content, delivered by the latest, most fashionable, cheapest dongle, subject to all the limitations and aggravations in the bulleted list above.

Steve Jobs recognized that the TV industry could never really innovate so long as the cable and satellite providers leased out a dumb box with a TV guide grid. The same applies to these HDMI dongles. They're essentially cheap flypaper to rope the customer into a given ecosystem without a lot of value added.

Of course, as my colleagues at The Mac Observer have pointed out, if one of these tech giants were to secure exclusive rights to the NFL, it would be game over. And so there's an arms race on to capture the most number of customers and land that exclusive deal. It may be a pipe dream.

Critics of Apple may see the dizzying pace of HDMI dongles as a testament that Apple can't innovate. In reality, this frenetic approach doesn't fundamentally improve the TV discovery and watching process. That's something Apple is uniquely suited to do, and it's likely to cost more than US$35.

Book Excerpts Don't Solve Problems

Recently, there have been articles about how Steve Jobs said that Apple would never sell its own TV set. Jay Yarrow published a great report on that, but others have pointed out that Mr. Jobs also confided with his biographer, Walter Isaacson, that he also had a vision of an "integrated television" that would be easy to use.

It's convenient to embrace Mr. Jobs's remarks about low margins and long turnover periods for TV sets while ignoring the fact that one can conceive of a vision for an integrated system that fundamentally changes the TV viewing experience. To do that, Apple would likely have to build its own UHDTV with its own special brand of visionary hardware and software, connected directly to home Wi-Fi and bypassing HDMI. Obviously, if Apple just punted and made its own UHDTV with HDMI inputs, it would be an utter failure.

Similarly, for Apple to simply settle for a more miniaturized, 4th generation Apple TV and slug it out with the other HDMI dongles is not what I expect the brilliant people at Apple to settle for. Vertical integration encapsulated in awesome industrial design is what Sir Ive and team are famous for.

This is why I'm not giving up on the idea that Apple will make an awesomely beautiful 4K UHDTV with a curved screen, an awesome new way of controlling it (maybe like this, or maybe something better), and many new ideas about how to manipulate and present the video stream. (See for example, Google's use of facial recognition and info cards.)

HDMI dongles, low sales margins for ordinary TVs, long turnover periods of dumb TVs, and other makers' smart TVs are just excuses to avoid creative thinking about the next grand challenge. Apple likes to make money, but only because it changed the world first.

The HDMI dongle isn't the New Thing viewers need, and Apple's innovation shouldn't be evaluated based on that frenzied market. If Apple makes it's own vertically integrated, next generation, easy to use TV system that thrills us and makes a profit, that's success on Apple's own terms.

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Comments

tcrooks3843

Fairly typically all the talk about Apple TV sets, rather than varieties of dongle, seems very US-centric to most Europeans. In the UK the Sky satellite service delivers the widest range of programming possible in the UK. It is a mixture of free-to-air, subscription, rental and purchase all delivered to a single box via satellite transmission and Internet networking. If you are in a cable area then Virgin delivers a similar mix. Much of this programming is downloadable for time-shifted viewing.

The main problems remain - it isn’t possible to add extra storage devices to a Sky box although it is possible to fit larger hard disk drives inside the box, it is very complex to extract programming from the hard disk inside a Sky box to another device (computer, tablet, smartphone), and Sky marketing makes it difficult to view programming on several devices in a home at the same time as they extract their extra cash from schemes such as Multiroom and Sky Go.

A full package can easily exceed $150 per month to get maximum viewing flexibility, four rooms and up to four mobile devices.

In 2014, Sky looks as though it will be close to making films available for downloadable purchase simultaneously with cinema general release. No sign of availability of ‘live’ broadcasts of productions from The Met, La Scala, the National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, and so on, as a paid-for viewing pass, though these live productions are very popular at UK cinemas.

What I’d like is the capability to view programming stored on the Sky box hard disk drive on my iPad or iPhone both at home and elsewhere. Must be technically possible but Sky marketing is the barrier?

Until this is in place I cannot see a pay-as-you-use scheme being viable at all. Made more difficult by the strong free-to-air franchises of the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, and Channel Five here in the UK. Elsewhere in Europe similar issues exist. So to get the Apple TV, Chromecast, etc., beyond a hobby requires a mighty upheaval of both networks and programming providers. Looks like a political matter to me.

geoduck

low sales margins for ordinary TVs, long turnover periods of dumb TVs, and other makers’ smart TVs are just excuses to avoid creative thinking about the next grand challenge.

Or maybe they are critical issues that will keep Apple from jumping into this shark pit.

If Apple makes it’s own vertically integrated, next generation, easy to use TV system

And therein lies the rub. Unless Apple has access to the content it won’t work. Any Apple Television would just be another cool TV that doesn’t sell because LG can produce one that does much the same for $299.

iTunes works so well because Apple got all the major, and most of the minor, players on board so there is a broad selection of material for customers to chose from. TV/Movies/etc. are controlled by studios, producers, cable providers, talent, and a thousand other people and companies that have made it very clear they won’t play ball with Apple. They’ve stated in no uncertain terms that to get their stuff (if they will even do business with Apple) then Apple will have to deal with them on the same terms that your local provider does. They chose what would be available, they set the terms, they set the price, they reserve the right to pull content at any time they feel like it. If Apple went along (and they’d be fools to do so) they’d be no better than your average cable provider.

This is why I still say there will be no Apple TV. I don’t see Apple improving the device enough better to make the switch a must have, and I don’t see Apple getting the content they need to be any better than a dumb TV plus cable/satellite. Does the whole TV experience need a major overhaul? Heck yes. Do I see the producers/cable companies/distributors/studios going along with giving Apple a significant roll in ‘new TV’? Heck no, not even if it would make them more money. There’s egos on the line.

mouring

I try so hard to like the idea of HDMI dongles and these cheaper “Smart boxes” for internet streaming, but I keep seeing a continue theme.. As stated above, I split my audio off to my stereo as there is no pass through from the TV to the stereo (wouldn’t want it if I did as my TV doesn’t grok DTS and other format greater than stereo sound).  As a result, I’d either have to get an HDMI audo/video splitter for 2x the cost of the cheap boxes or continue to use my AppleTV Gen2 until I find a better product.

With this said, I’m mostly happy with the Gen2 (Note: I only have a 720p TV at this point).  This is only one sticking point which is the lack of DLNA support.  I’m not happy about the “run iTunes” to draw files off the NAS to replay to the AppleTV hack.  It is dirty, and requires me to run more hardware than I should have to make it work.

At one point I had cracked my Gen2 and put XBMC, but I had to revert that a month ago due to updates in Netflix which caused me to lose the ability to manage audio language preferences.

I know Apple is trying to make a seamless environment, but this one piece of the puzzle isn’t solve right which is sad.  Because otherwise I don’t mind AppleTV.  I’m more grumpy at the.. “Oh, here is HBO, Disney, etc channels.. Oh dang since your not currently spending $200 via your cable company well f**k you…” which isn’t really Apple’s fault, but cable company and cable channel stupidity, and would follow me no matter what device I buy.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

I gotta say John, I’ve bought 6 Chromecasts (3 as gifts). For Hulu+ and Netflix, they’re amazing and easy. Google Play has as much new stuff to rent/buy as iTunes. Android phone or tablet as remote work great.

If you travel, the Chromecast is perfect to bring along. Many hotel TVs have an HDMI port accessible. Boom, easy entertainment.

John Martellaro

Brad: I believe you.  I have one to play with now.

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