Sorry, Apple/Amazon/Google Your Current Products Can't Win the TV Settop Box Wars

TV settop boxes. There are so many of them now, and they all do something slightly different. There’s one for those who love Amazon, one for those who love Apple, even a couple that aren’t boxes at all and just plug into a port on the back of your TV. It's an escalating arms race, but none of the settop boxes available now is going to score a decisive victory in this battle, because none are best for the customer.

Here’s what I want: a device that pushes high quality video (currently 1080p) to my television; a device that doesn’t care if that video came from iTunes, Amazon video, Netflix, or a hard drive on my network; a device that can deliver video from a cable company as on-demand video, something I recorded, or even a live broadcast.

Jeff Gamet has named this imaginary device the KellyCast, and so say we all.

Unicorn TVBehold the KellyCast: Unicorn of Boxes-You-Hook-to-the-TV

Why does envisioning this box cause me to cry like Iron Eyes Cody? Because it doesn’t exist now and probably never will. There’s a simple reason for this, too: what makes the KellyCast good for me is precisely what makes it terrible for everyone making these boxes now.

If I have both iTunes and Amazon stores in the same device, nobody cares about the exclusive movie release deal anymore. With the KellyCast, I just buy it when it’s out and move on. This of course terrifies companies who have some sort of unholy content alliance (I’m looking at you, Comcast/NBC). They all seem convinced that if I have any option, I will choose something besides them, and that’s not necessarily true.

Remember when iTunes was first launched? It was supposedly a terrible idea for labels to release music "online" because they couldn't compete with piracy. It turns out, however, that when it's easier for me to hand over a dollar and immediately rock that Soulsister song than to prowl the seedy underbelly of the internet for a pirated MP3, that's a no-brainer.

Those same rules apply to movies and TV shows. If it's easy and reasonably priced, I'll hand over the cash, and I don't really care who I give it to.

Right now the most popular boxes require you to choose an ecosystem, no takebacks. There’s no “good” answer, mostly just “less bad” or “close.” If I have a fair amount of purchases from Amazon, and an equal number from iTunes, there’s not a good choice for me. Amazon will happily sell me a box to see their video, if I’m willing to forsake all my iTunes content. Apple is glad to hand me a little black box that lives in a world where Amazon Video doesn’t exist.

Apple is closest right now, since the company does allow Netflix and Hulu+ and a few other non-Apple sources of content, but no Amazon Video, and my own video only works if iTunes supports the format. If the Apple branded cable box rumors are true, that’s virtually everything the KellyCast would be.

I think Apple could flat out win this with a new generation of Apple TV. In some ways, Apple has been good about understanding it isn't the only game in town. It was always possible to view a Windows file on Mac OS, sometimes even edit, because Apple knew there were other OS options out there.

I wish it would take the same approach with the Apple TV and give me a few non-Apple channels. Pair that with cable box capability and the choice would be clear.