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Why the Apple TV Doesn't Make Toast

Hidden Dimensions - Why the Apple TV Doesn't Make Toast

April 23rd, 2008

"You know, our next big step is we want it to make toast."

- Steve Jobs (2004, referring to iPods)

I have written a lot about the Apple TV. I've written about updates, I've pointed to stories and reviews, and I've discussed the compression issues related to getting HD content into the customer's Apple TV via the Internet. All along the way, I've resisted buying one for several reasons. I didn't think much of the content selection, I was trying to avoid another "buy the box then pay for the content" syndrome, and finally, I was using an iPod nano 3G to physically move content from my Mac to my HD TV system's A/V receiver input, and that seemed good enough.

In time, I decided those reason's weren't good enough, so over the weekend, I bought a 40GB Apple TV, and while my perceptions about the device haven't change a lot, my perceptions of the Internet culture surrounding devices like this have.

Sometimes, It's Time for Fun

First of all, I should say that I like the Apple TV. The feed from a Comcast cable modem goes to a hardware firewall/router, then a D-Link gigabit switch in my office. From there, it continues through the walls to the living room via a Cat 5 Ethernet cable to an uplinked Linksys 10/100 switch. From there, I'm into the Apple TV and out to the Denon A/V Receiver via HDMI. I'm easily exceeding the 6 Mbps required to utilize an Apple TV for HD trailers and movies, since the link exits the Linksys switch at a measured 12 Mbps. All's well there.

I've not purchased any movies or TV shows yet, but I have looked at some trailers in HD, synced to my Mac's iTunes that has Jeremiah, Season II, (one of my all time favorite TV shows) and everything works really well. HD trailers come up fast and look fairly good, but not as good as, say, Blu-ray content, in my opinion. One of the keys, I think, is creating suitable playlists on the Mac within iTunes so one can sync only those things one really wants to watch and not fill up the Apple TV hard disk with synced items.

I've also checked out the Flickr and YouTube features. Some of the YouTube videos, in tortured SD, can look really bad. YouTube is not a Strange Attractor for me. All in all, for about $200, the Apple TV is a lot of fun and, as we already know, affords a lot of instant gratification. If one has to venture into the dreaded zone of box fatigue, this is a painless way to do it.

But it Doesn't Make Toast

The Apple TV has been reviewed to death, and I'm not going to do another. Instead, I find myself reflecting on the psychology of devices like this that percolates the group-think of the Internet. In some ways, we are too well connected. We know, or think we know too much. For example, in my readings and research for HDTV, I found dozens of vehement, strong, angry, energetic, bitter articles about the DIRECTV HR20 satellite receiver plus DVR. One would have thought it was the crappiest piece of hardware on the planet. Of course, those few dozen or 50 comments and even a dubious Internet publication review only reflected the experience of a smattering of millions of DIRECTV customers who are happy and wouldn't have the foggiest idea how to post a nastygram on AVS Forum -- if they even knew about it.

Mine has worked very nicely without a major problem. I do have to reset it once a month because the internal clock drifts and is only reset when the system is reset. Annoying, but not tragic.

Again, my experience at Apple serves me well here. One off cases mean nothing. A few dozen complaints mean nothing. [In terms of overall product quality, not with regard to making each customer individually happy, I must add.] Look at the statistics and look at the Big Numbers. Large scale numbers tell a story that individuals cannot, no matter how angry they get.

The same goes for any consumer product.

The point of all this is that some writers can fall into what I call the Toast Syndrome. Loud voices, seeking to be heard, and without deep insight can nevertheless affect many. Those voices set up a presumptive set of specifications and requirements for a product when they first hear rumors about the device. Throw in a little bit of Star Trekian whimsical idealism, and they've got a pretty clear picture of what they'd like to see in the product in its earliest days. Naturally, those hopes almost never reflect the practical realities of engineering that Apple had to deal with during the design and prototyping. Just think about how Apple thrashed around with the iPhone before it was released. Apple probably had a lot of ideas, including being a MVNO before it finally realized that the company couldn't, or shouldn't, build its own wireless infrastructure.

I remember, as an example, how when the Newton first came out, many were disappointed that it wasn't also a cell phone. That's a sobering recollection.

The result of all this is that the scuttlebutt on the Internet, as one does a mental integration, leads to a situation where almost any new product can lead to frustration by writers, reviewers and vocal customers. Here's what it sounds like:

"DIRECTV's DVRs are a POS."

"The iPod doesn't have a FM radio! Don't buy one yet."

"The iPhone doesn't have built-in hardware GPS. It's crap."

"The Apple TV only has 720p/24 output. Doesn't Apple know this is the era of 1080p? Take my advice, wait till next year."

"And it doesn't make toast."

The Rewards of Simplicity

A commonly overlooked factor in all this is that a lot of potential Apple customers out there don't spend as much time as others on the Internet. They're too busy working, commuting, paying bills, doing the laundry, shuttling a 12 year-old to soccer practice, or planning a wedding or vacation. They know they have a problem when it comes to getting the content they want on TV, but they're not deeply technical. On the other hand, we have younger people with time to burn and writers whose job it is to review consumer electronics looking to have a distinctive opinion. Everyone has a blog, even yours truly, and rising above the noise level is hard.

That's why, in most cases, the simple, even simplistic, message from Apple marketing works. There is wisdom there.

I'm certainly not anti-technology, far from it, but I think there's a good side to not worrying too much about whether the Apple TV can make toast. It does what it does. A friendly Apple salesperson in any of 200 Apple retail stores can demo an Apple TV and explain its key advantages. There's a great video guided tour on Apple's Website that should be printed on a business card and sent home with any doubtful customer. Except Apple is a green company and doesn't like too much paper laying around the stores.

That said, no company always gets the first incarnation absolutely right. Apple TV Take One was a little too geeky and depended on having a Mac in the middle. Apple TV Take Two can connect directly to the Internet. In the retail stores, Apple replaced its Sony LCD displays next to the Apple TV with Pioneer Plasmas. That was smart because brightly lit LCDs can have a flat, two-dimensional look while the very best Plasmas have a rich, almost three-dimensional look. They also have superior black levels, dollar for dollar. So it has taken some time for Apple to make the Apple TV buying and user experience what it should be. Waiting for a little bit for new technology to sort itself out is seldom a bad idea.

Right now, the TV industry is in chaos. Metrics for understanding the audience habits, preferences, and how they react to Internet advertising are hard to come by. Netflix competes with Blockbuster, and both are worried to death about the Internet putting them out of business before they can change their business models. Network appointment TV, as a comfortable punctuation of the work week, is harder and harder to come by. There is very little to hold on to as every technology that can be devised is eventually implemented and thrown at the consumer. In the middle of that chaos, Apple with its Apple TV has attempted to carve out a niche for the frenzied and time robbed American consumer.

Experience the Experience

The thing is, none of that really comes home until one goes out and experiences it. Once one is immersed in what the Apple TV actually does and how it does it, one gains a new appreciation and perspective. Looking at it from the outside is like all those lunatics who say the HDTV industry is a mess -- just wait a couple of years.

Nonsense. Buy an HDTV system now if you can afford it. The difference between HD and SD is so astounding, no matter what level of compression is used (almost), that it's time to jump in on some scale as time and money permit. The same goes for Apple TV.

What I learned about the Apple TV was that sometimes it's better to experience something that's not perfect than to get wrapped around the endless axle of Internet diatribes, reviews, blogs and second-guessing. Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster has predicted that Apple will sell almost 3 million of them this year. So if you've wanted an Apple TV and have even the slightest doubt about it, I'd say go get one* and experience the reality of it.

Even if it doesn't make toast.

* Assuming you have a 6+ Mbps Internet connection and meet all the other system requirements.

John Martellaro is a senior scientist and author. A former U.S. Air Force officer,he has worked for NASA, White Sands Missile Range, Lockheed Martin Astronautics, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Apple Computer. During his five years at Apple, he worked as a Senior Marketing Manager for science and technology, Federal Account Executive, and High Performance Computing Manager. His interests include alpine skiing, SciFi, astronomy, and Perl. John lives in Denver, Colorado.

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