The Tortoise and the Hare

As many products as Apple seems to have gotten right (read: all but maybe a couple), there’s one that they just seem to refuse to get right.

That product is the Apple TV.

I’ve already criticized this product almost a year ago, however as the time for a refresh, or as I’ve read on MacRumors this morning, no refresh, comes nearer, I’ve decided it’s probably time to discuss it again, and to discuss why it isn’t living up to its full potential.

The most prominent rumor that currently exists is that the Apple TV won’t get a hardware refresh this year. This goes against previous rumors that it would be getting an A5.

Why does it matter that the Apple TV won’t be getting an A5?

Big-screen gaming takes a lot of horsepower. This more or less confirms that the Apple TV won’t be getting an App Store any time soon.

This is an example of the classic fable of the tortoise and the hare. You know, the one where the tortoise challenges the hare to a race, the hare quickly advances past the tortoise in the race, then grows over-confident and proceeds to take a nap, only to wake up and find that the tortoise has won.

While it may not seem like much, this children’s story paints a perfect picture of the TV set-top box market.

Apple is accepting the fact that it’s “winning” the set-top box market, so they’ve simply decided that they’re not even going to try to accomplish anything further. They’re doing better than everyone else, for now, so they’re happy that their product is the best, even though it isn’t really even good.

As an example of by how much Apple is currently ahead in this market, returns of one of its competitors, the Logitech Revue, have actually exceeded its sales this quarter.

However, while the hare sleeps, I expect the tortoise to make its comeback.

Here’s why.

The Logitech Revue is a flop for two reasons:

A. Its exorbitant price tag ($249).

B. It does the exact same stuff the Apple TV does. Just like everyone else in this situation, when two products do the exact same thing, I’ll go with the Apple option, especially when it’s quite a bit less than half the price of the alternative.

However, Google TV/the Revue is stepping up its game. They’re slashing the price of the device to $99 (the same as that of the Apple TV), and bringing an app platform to it. And an app platform (primarily for gaming) is exactly what people want. The current consoles suck (see my last post), and the market’s ripe for the picking, by a new kind of “console,” one that isn’t designed explicitly for gaming, but does it as an auxiliary function. The era of FPS after FPS after FPS is over. People are ready for the rise of casual gaming on the TV, as has already been seen on the smartphone and tablet platforms. Ultimately, this is the finish line in the metaphorical race of the tortoise and the hare.

So hasn’t the Roku won the race? It brings Angry Birds to the big screen.

Don’t kid yourself. Yes, the Roku brings Angry Birds to the big screen, and as much as I’ve used that as the example of what people (myself included) want to do, that really made me rethink what I want. Yes, I want Angry Birds on the big screen, but if that’s the only thing I can do, I’ll finish it pretty quickly, and then have nothing to do with the device for the two months until the next update. What we really need is a proven application platform (therefore the only real potential competitors are Apple and Google) on the big screen (hopefully including Angry Birds). Unfortunately, Apple seems to be resting on their laurels here and not acknowledging what they could unleash on the Apple TV platform. Then again, Steve Jobs did call it a “hobby,” and maybe he doesn’t want it to become anything more than that.

What of AirPlay mirroring?

It’s a glorified VNC client. No really, it is. Okay, so it’s not technically using the VNC platform, but why wait for iOS 5? Just install Veency on your iPad and port a VNC viewer to the Apple TV, and you have AirPlay mirroring. It’s not the same thing, but it does the same thing. Yet AirPlay does sound kinda stupid when its significance is compared to such a simple hacked-together solution, doesn’t it? Plus, this raises the price of the Apple TV from $100 to $600, considering you need an iPad 2 to use it. Yes, I have an iPad 2, but I want to run its apps on the device they were designed for, not on my TV. The only solution here is native apps.

So who wins the race?

The tortoise, of course. The Apple TV might be a vast expanse of space ahead of Google TV products such as the Revue now, but with the Revue’s new-found lower price tag, along with the promise of the Android Market within a couple of months, all while Apple puts no real effort into improving the Apple TV, the status quo isn’t going to last.

Android Market? Yuck.

Yes, I know. But Java apps are better than no apps, and Angry Birds is Angry Birds, regardless of the language it’s been ported to.

Still, it’s quite unlike you to be critical of Apple. Why the change of heart?

It isn’t a change, it’s a one-off thing. I still have a general dislike of Android, but I still have to respect its occasional merits.

You should really be asking, “It’s quite unlike Apple to rest on their laurels. Why the one-off change of principles?”

Look at the iPad. It dominated, and still dominates, the tablet market. Yet Apple didn’t stop with the original. They brought out the iPad 2, with a dual-core A5 processor, significantly thinner and lighter form, and dual cameras, while still managing to deliver the same excellent battery life. I bought both the original iPad and the iPad 2, yet I’m still not sold on the Apple TV, and at this rate, never will be.

I guess the difference is that not only was the iPad the best product in its class, relatively speaking, it was also an awesome product, absolutely speaking (as is the iPad 2). The Apple TV, on the other hand, while currently the best in its class, relatively speaking, is a lackluster product, absolutely speaking. Apple said it’s only a “hobby,” and they’ve made that not only their goal, but their limit, for the product.

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