“I, for one, do not think that the problem was that the band was down. I think that the problem may have been that there was a Stonehenge monument on the stage that was in danger of being crushed by a dwarf.”
Steve Jobs gives great gadget and he was in fine form on Wednesday introducing new iPods, a revamped iTunes and a completely overhauled AppleTV. Can the mighty Jobs finally jump-start the digital living room entertainment future? I don’t think so. While there’s a lot to like about the new AppleTV, it still fails to address the major impediments. We remain, sadly, stuck in a convoluted and costly transition period.
If you’ve followed the home theater hijinks on the this blog, you may remember that my high definition TV gets one (expensive) set of programming from Verizon cable with tuning and DVR capabilities from a Tivo box. Blu-Ray and DVD come via a separate Samsung player. And downloadable and streamed Internet video from iTunes and web sites arrive on a connected Mac mini. Monthly fees go to Verizon and Tivo with extra charges to iTunes and disc retailers. Occasionally we buy downloadable content from Amazon on the Tivo, too. That’s three boxes, four remotes and a big mess o’ cash.
Digital TV programs and movies come and go from these different platforms, sometimes disappearing to protect other distribution outlets (and revenue streams) while carrying inexplicable price differences and incompatible DRM locks.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Music fans can choose from among millions and millions of songs to buy from a bunch of competing retailers that can be played on any device of their choosing. Or, they can pay a modest monthly fee and get access to the proverbial jukebox in the sky. Sure, the music labels have too much control over pricing but competition among retailers means songs go on sale all the time. We’ve built up a gargantuan digital music library at this point that we can listen to in any room in the house, in the car, on a business trip and so on.
Plenty of folks have great ideas about the real answer should be. Don MaCaskill has a detailed blog post (“What the AppleTV should have been“) seeking a far more open model, with content makers and distributors allowed to hook in and set their own business terms (ie HBO makes programs available only to HBO cable subscribers, Hulu streams to anyone). Khoi Vinh is thinking along the same lines, hoping content makers and gear makers can all get on the same page and simplify (“Apple Blinks in the Living Room“).
Another thing that would help would be a truly converged device. Long ago, Tivo allowed other manufacturers to license its software. We had one of these first generation boxes, made by Toshiba, that included a Tivo plus a DVD player and burner. This eliminated the need for a separate DVD player though it did not have a cable tuner and required a jerry-rigged cable box controller. Since then, Tivo boxes have incorporated cable tuners but eliminated disc players.
So what’s holding up video? To paraphrase the Spinal Tap quote above, I do not think the problem is with the gadget makers. I think that the problem is the entertainment and cable industries’ dwarves trampling on our TVs and iPads and smart phones. And because the old ways of selling and distributing video entertainment remain incredibly lucrative, nothing Apple does is going to be much help. The annoyingly limited, fragmented, inconsistent and costly realities of the digital video marketplace look to be entrenched for the foreseeable future. For anyone with even the slightest bit of optimism about this situation, I’m afraid it’s going to be a long, long wait.