October 11, 2007
BUT! I think Apple TV will be an amazing device, and a massive success for Apple... after they make a few changes.
Why did I turn mine off? Well, because in my TV room I also have a Mac mini hooked up to a 2TB drive. The Mac mini runs Front Row, just like the Apple TV, so it could be looked as a more-expensive version of the same device.
However, the mini also runs iTunes, so I can buy new shows on the same system on which I'm watching TV. With the Apple TV, I have to have my laptop downstairs and turned on, and buy and download a new movie on the laptop before I switch over to my Apple TV to watch it. Clunky! (The situation is worse if you have a Mac Pro with your media on it -- what are you going to do, run upstairs to the computer room every time you want to buy a song or show?)
And because the mini has a huge drive hooked up to it, it also acts as a content server to the rest of my house, so I can have a unified home for all my music and TV shows and movies, whether ripped or bought from iTunes -- it's my "Windows Home Server" without the Windows. Unlike with the Apple TV, which can't have an external disk, I never have to bring a second system into the equation, so the mini ends up being cheaper than the Apple TV, because the Apple TV requires a separate computer.
And now I don't even have to bother storing my movies on my laptop, which is great, because my drive is already pretty damn full of porn. Uh, I mean builds of Delicious Library 2. In fact, nowadays if I want to buy a new movie and I'm not downstairs, I remotely access my mini from my laptop using Apple Remote Desktop and buy it from the version of iTunes running on the mini, so it's right on my server where I want it. Again, possible because the mini is running a full OS, not just Front Row.
Note that a lot of the movies and TV shows I want to watch aren't from iTunes -- but since the mini is an open system, I can download Perian, an open source QuickTime add-on, and play movies AVI, FLV, MKV, DivX, and a billion other gibberish words. Hell, I don't even know what an FLV is. But, the point is, some of the content I want to play is in these formats, and Apple doesn't support them in QuickTime natively, so I can't play them on my Apple TV, since it's a closed system.
If a friend brings over a DVD, I just pop it in the mini and we watch it. The DVD player under OS X has a much nicer interface (and remote!) than any other player I've had, so I put my super-expensive multi-region player into cold storage. The Apple TV doesn't have a DVD drive, and you can't hook one up, since it ignores external USB devices.
For my personal DVDs, I can rip them using Handbrake and store them in my Movies folder, and Front Row magically finds them! No more pawing through stacks of DVDs! I finally have a DVD jukebox, the ultimate geek dream. The Apple TV doesn't allow me to install any third-party software. Heck, I can't even rip my CDs on the Apple TV, since it doesn't run iTunes and doesn't have a CD drive.
To sum up: Apple TV doesn't allow developers to get at its UNIX underpinnings. It doesn't allow for modifications of its system software. It doesn't allow people to hook up an external disk or a DVD drive. It's a completely closed system. And, as of right now, it's pretty much a failure.
Apple took a guess as to what features the market would want, and because Apple didn't allow for third parties to tweak and optimize what their system does, their guess had to be perfect the first time. It wasn't, and the Apple TV stays off in my house.
There appears to be a battle being fought inside Apple, on whether Apple will be a company that provides solutions or provides tools. iTunes and Front Row are solutions -- really great solutions, sure. They are very friendly and they solve very specific problems beautifully. But they aren't particularly extensible by themselves. We can't make new functionality with them. (Note that if we have access to the underlying machine, as we do with the Mac mini, we are given the tools to modify these solutions -- we can make Front Row play MKV files by adding QuickTime components, even though it was written before MKV existed. We can make iTunes play WMVs.)
Having a system be open, having it able to freely accept peripherals and new programs, turns it into a tool as well as a solution. Each customer can decide what she wants the system to be, and developers can create new solutions -- and if those solve compelling problems, the entire system will be that much more successful. And, at the end of this cycle, the makers of the original tool can integrate these third-party solutions, so the tool grows for everyone.
The amazing thing about the Mac mini vs. the Apple TV is it perfectly encapsulates the debate between providing solutions or tools to your customers. They are very similar boxes, from a raw-capability point of view, but one was closed and the other open. The Apple TV is a solution, and right now it's desperately searching for people who have the problem it solves.
With the Mac mini, Apple provided us with a mix of solutions (iTunes, Front Row, etc) and tools (expandability, compilers, access to UNIX, access to plug-in directories). And, as a set-top box, the mini is incredible. Now, obviously, I have no idea what the mini's sales numbers are, and Apple hasn't really pushed the mini as a set-top box, and it does cost more than the Apple TV, blah blah blah... but it's clear to me that if the Apple TV did what the mini does, the Apple TV would be a GREAT set-top box and home server. It would own the Microsoft Home Server so hard that Ballmer would wake up with a sore back.
Why doesn't Apple just fix their solutions themselves, you say? If we all want MKV movies so much, why doesn't Apple just include support for it?
Well, first off, they probably should, in this particular example. But Apple only has so many engineers on QuickTime, and besides it may not be particularly popular to add support for bizarro file formats from other companies, especially when Apple is pushing MPEG-4 (aka QuickTime) as the One True Wrapper.
Second off, third parties can afford to sometimes make very limited or kind of half-baked solutions to dip a toe into the water, and if those are popular they can be fixed up later. Open Source projects don't make headlines in the NY Times when they push a major release that has some bugs, so we collectively get to invent a TON of different things let the market figure out which ones are pursuing. Consider the original CoverFlow, which was originally just a (really cool) demo by a third-party, in search of a problem to solve. Now Apple's bought it and put it into everything it ships except for iPod socks.
Apple can't anticipate every change that is coming, or which changes will end up being popular. No, I don't think they should give up trying to do so, but I do think they should share the burden. For instance, I've never seen an "FLV" file. Let's pretend for a minute that Apple did spend a bunch of time writing an FLV component for QuickTime, instead of speeding up h.264 encoding or something. And then, it turned out basically nobody used FLV, and Apple wasted their time and lost other neat functionality because of it.
Now, the nice thing about FLV support being add in Perian is that Apple essentially has a bunch of suckers (I use the term lovingly) taking all the risk for them. If nobody cares about third-party movie formats -- well, Apple didn't spend any time on it. Shrug! If EVERYBODY cares about them -- well, there they are! Go download 'em! In fact, hey, these are open source -- Apple could just start bundling with them. No effort spent on Apple's part, but their marketshare just got a lot bigger.
This is the beauty of open systems. Apple has a ton of very talented designers and very smart engineers. But they shouldn't have to be the ONLY smart people in the world, who must anticipate everything every customer might ever need. It's asking too much.
This whole post is ironic because Apple pays its AppleScript evangelists to say exactly what I'm saying, but back to us developers: Add scriptability to your apps! You can't anticipate everything the customer will want, but you can make your app into a tool! Allow other vendors to tie into your system and everyone wins!
I expect Apple will rev the Apple TV soon. One thing they could announce is that you can now rent movies over the internet, or maybe they'll announce you can access the iTunes store from directly inside Front Row. Either of these would be nice, sure. But they'd just be more pre-made solutions -- maybe they'd be popular enough to make the Apple TV a decent success, maybe not. But we would never know what Apple TV could be.
What I want Apple to announce is that they are merging the Apple TV with the Mac mini, and making it a hybrid closed/open system - a machine that boots into Front Row but can be used as a standard computer if you press some magic keys. A turn-key solution that can be opened up by advanced users and developers. The first mainstream consumer device that is infinitely hackable.
The world is waiting for such a product. Apple's the company to do it.
Set me free inside an Apple TV, see what I do for you.
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