How Apple Should Fix Apple TV

Let me preface this by saying that I like the Apple TV. It’s a solid device. And actually, it’s annoying to be in a room without one for the times you really, really want to use AirPlay. Which is brilliantly conceived and executed. And, as you might expect, Apple TV has by far the best interface of the streaming boxes. That is, of course, entirely subjective. But having used all of the other ones, I’m also not sure it is subjective.

That’s where the niceties stop. Because as nice as Apple TV is, Apple is totally blowing it with the device. And it’s beyond frustrating to me as a consumer.

We’re now so far removed from Steve Jobs’ famous (infamous?) “I’ve finally cracked it…” line relayed in his biography that it’s not even worth joking about anymore. It’s just depressing. Obviously Apple hasn’t cracked television.

Call me crazy, but it seems so goddamn obvious what Apple should do here. And it’s not spending a billion dollars a year on original content.¹ Maybe that works, maybe that doesn’t. They seem to have hired well. But even if they’re successful with that, it will be more of the same, just served up by Apple.

The iPhone wasn’t a blockbuster device because it was the same as everything that came before it, just with better content. It quite literally changed the game. And it did so by — forgive me — thinking about the game differently.

Apple didn’t focus on building just a phone — that was but one part of the device, as Jobs so famously announced on stage. It was the other two aspects: the media player and the internet communication device, that made the iPhone not a Blackberry, but an iPhone.

With the current Apple TV box, Apple is building a better Blackberry.

Many years ago, I wrote about Apple’s potential foray into gaming in the living room with a forthcoming Apple TV. That never happened. I mean, it did — there are games on the Apple TV. But it’s still not a market Apple chooses to focus on, as they note themselves. Anyone can clearly see this by simply looking down at the remote they ship with the Apple TV.

As a remote control, it sucks. As a gaming pad, it’s infuriating. Rather than fix both things in the most recent iteration of the Apple TV, the company put a ring around the Menu button. Seriously, that’s what they did.

Apple: no one gives a shit how svelte your remote control is. In fact, it’s one of the few instances in life where it would actually be better to create a bigger, bulkier piece of hardware. Yes, we all hate this. But you’ve perfected a device that it both impossible to orient and seems to have a magnified gravitational pull towards the black hole that is the crevice between all couch cushions. Congrats.

Now scrap the damn thing and make a real remote. The touch top of the remote is cool — make it about 4x the size. Maybe put it on both ends of the device so it doesn’t matter which way you hold it. Use your iPad wizardry to ignore accidental clicks and taps. And make it so when held horizontally, it’s the most kick-ass newfangled joypad the world has ever known.²

Double and triple down on games. You already have all the best game developers in the world — even Nintendo!³ — working with you thanks to iOS. This is such low-hanging fruit. You don’t need to directly compete with the Xbox and Playstation; you can create a market far bigger than what they could ever hope to achieve. Also, just as with iPhone/iPad, if you upgrade the Apple TV each year with your latest and greatest chips, you’ll be running laps around Microsoft and Sony — with their five-year-plus console upgrade cycles — in the living room in no time…

Next up: recognize the fact that you have the Apple TV in millions of homes already. There’s all this handwringing about how many Echo devices Amazon has sold into homes. Apple is behind. Yadda, yadda.

Again, you already have had millions of devices in people’s living rooms for years at this point. So when I read the news that Amazon is thinking about morphing the Fire TV into an Echo, I can’t help but think: of course! They’re beating you at your own game. The Apple TV should have been this device.

Yes, yes, I know. Siri is on the Apple TV! She’s so neutered that she’s almost useless. Not only can she not do everything she can elsewhere — talk about cognitive load failure for a user — you have to push a button to invoke her. Even though the Apple TV is a device always on/connected.

Yes, yes, privacy! You already allow all recent iOS devices to have Siri invoked via a voice command. Why on Earth can you not do this on the Apple TV?

You already tout the HomeKit functionality. This is your Home Hub! It’s also the best photo and video viewer for a whole family imagineable. And music! HomePod sounds great (figuratively, at least — I haven’t yet heard it myself); it’s a smart play to focus on music. But there’s no reason a HomePod couldn’t and shouldn’t be able to be hooked up to your television to provide brilliant visuals — album art, lyrics, the old school, cool iTunes visualizers — alongside the tunes. This could be seamless if the HomePod was also the Apple TV…

I could go on…

And here’s maybe the key: a new device is needed — an actual breakthrough device, not just a slightly better one — to truly transform the category. It may not be clear that the demand is there simply because no one has done this correctly yet. Apple can do this correctly. All the pieces are already there, they just need to be put together. This is what Apple does.

And guess what? If Apple does this, they’ll suddenly have a blockbuster device that will give them some real leverage over the content guys. There’s a reason that Apple started with the iPhone only on AT&T and then everyone flocked to them, basically begging to get on board once the device was a hit. Right now, Apple is asking all the content players to give them better deals than everyone else they’re talking to. Yet their box is really no different. It’s why Disney — the content company that has been closest to Apple over the years, and has a certain family, the Jobs family, which until recently was its largest shareholder, and whose CEO sits on Apple’s board — doesn’t feel the need to cooperate on 4K content right now. They don’t need to.

Instead, Apple is throwing money at the problem in order to create content. Take a step back and think about how crazy that sounds for a second. Well, if you read the rest of the media landscape, it doesn’t sound so crazy because that’s what all the other guys are doing. Which is precisely why it’s so weird that Apple is now trying to do this. John Gruber put it well recently:

If you ever watch baseball, sometimes the ceremonial first pitch is thrown by a talented athlete from another sport, but they’ve never played baseball, and the results are comically bad. That’s what it feels like watching Apple try to produce TV shows.

Look, 4K is great. HDR? Cool. Both are nice-to-haves. Not 3D TV-stupid, but also not vital. If you’re like me and you don’t have a 4K television and don’t feel the need to upgrade until it’s time to get a new television in general — read: basically everyone — it’s not a reason to buy the new Apple TV. Neither is the significantly faster chip, as nice as smoother navigation sounds.⁴ So…

Three devices: A connected television device to stream and watch all your favorite content with a new touch-sensitive remote control. A living room gaming device with instant access to thousands of games made by developers all around the world, and a great new controller. An always-on home assistant and hub with access to thousands of apps and services.

A connected television device.

A living room gaming device.

An always-on home assistant.

Are you getting it? These are not three separate devices.⁵ This is one device. And we are calling it Apple TV.

image via Wired

¹ Because the first tests worked so well…

² Yeah, yeah “physical buttons rule, touch controls drool” — also, the iPhone needs a physical keyboard.

³ Buy. Buy. Buy. Please.

⁴ You know what can and will really benefit from that new chip? Games.

⁵ And let’s not even get started on the notion of Apple including a camera in a new Apple TV device and destroying the insanely awful video conferencing market with FaceTime for the Home/Office…

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