One Giant Step for Apple, One Small Step for Cord Cutters

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I’ve been looking forward to the new Apple TV for a long time.  Partly because I love new Apple devices and partly because I am an acceptable device away from dumping DirecTV, and cutting the cord forever.  To date, the problem has been that there is not one comprehensive set-top box to rule them all.  There are numerous alternatives, with various strengths and common weaknesses.  I am a long time AppleTV user, all the way back to the first generation.  They have always been pretty good devices, much better at integrating with and serving up content within the Apple ecosystem than wrangling content from the multitude of other content providers.

And there’s always been that question about what, exactly, Apple wanted the AppleTV to be.

It took Apple a long time to decide whether the Apple TV is a hobby, a product, or something in between.  I’m still not sure we know.  My hunch is that Apple would like to make the Apple TV the one-stop device to rule all cord cutters, but the inability to work out deals with content providers who know the bundling gig is almost up has led Apple to settle for half-measures.  Accordingly, we end up with hardware sufficient for the task, likely unreleased software that would vastly improve the current experience, and insufficient content licenses to allow Apple to bring it all together.  In other words, when Eddy Cue says the Apple TV will be an add-on device for most users, he’s right.  Not because that was the design and intent, but because that’s the best they can do, for now.

So where does that leave us?

My third-generation Apple TV is a fine product, for limited purposes.  It’s great for Netflix, renting and buying movies from Apple, and watching Wake Forest get its ass kicked on ESPN3 (again, as long as I’m willing to dutifully subscribe to DirecTV and enter my credentials every so often).  It’s not sufficient for managing and watching network and cable television shows, because of the haphazard mishmash of separate apps that create a disjointed experience that would make even the most ardent Android user blush.  In fact, I’ve paid for iTunes subscriptions to TV shows I could theoretically access for free via a third-party app, simply because the third-party app process is so painful.  Sure, with enough effort and password entries, you can probably find fairly recent episodes of at least some of your favorite network television shows.  What you cannot do is create a unified playlist where your “subscribed” shows automatically appear for easy access and enjoyment.  Another big problem with prior Apple TVs (those of you in big cities with fat broadband pipes probably never experienced this) is underpowered components.  When I’m in town, with my 100 plus Mbps connection, everything plays almost instantly.  When I’m at the farm, where I’m lucky to get 5 Mbps speeds, it can take hours for a rented movie to start.  I always assumed this was solely due to internet download speeds, until I bought an Amazon Fire TV, and immediately noticed a significant reduction in waiting times.  Neither Apple nor Amazon has managed to produce a unified, elegant user experience on their set-top devices, but Amazon fire TVs are a lot faster than the prior generation Apple TVs.

I’m in town this weekend, so I haven’t had a chance to test my new Apple TV on a slow internet connection.  I’m assuming it will match or exceed the capabilities of my year old Amazon Fire TV.  If not, my shiny new Apple TV will be returned immediately.

I hoped the new Apple TV would solve most of these nagging problems, or at least give us hope that Apple is making progress in the cord cutting war.  The fact is, however, that the new Apple TV, both in appearance and experience, is a whole lot more like the last generation Apple TV than it is a new, improved and unified experience.  For example, while the initial setup of the new Apple TV seems easy and high techy, because you use a Bluetooth connection with your iPhone to do something,  you still have to initially enter your iTunes name and password over and over again, even for different Apple-provided features. It’s maddening, and surely unnecessary.

There is also no universal playlist or the equivalent.  Sure, we can search a few services (with hopefully more to come) with Siri (I’m a Siri liker, but not a Siri lover), but we don’t want to have to ask Siri to find us shows to watch every time we sit down.  We want to subscribe to shows at the lowest available cost and have them show up in a unified playlist.  How hard can that be?  DirecTV and TiVo have been doing it since the last century.

All the new colors are fine.  I’m glad there’s now an App Store.  Maybe one day there’ll be some decent apps.  Others may like the new ability to play games (though I wonder just how robust the Apple TV gaming platform will be; I have concerns).  But all of this seems like a paint job, when we need a complete remodel.

Now, back to passwords.  Not only is reentering your iTunes credentials over and over during setup a drag (it’s hard to explain how painful it is entering text with the new remote; you have to experience it to truly hate it), there is apparently no universal authentication for your cable or satellite subscriptions.  Which means when you download the various content provider apps, which so far are mostly identical to the old ones, you have to authenticate, every time.

In sum, when the QVC app is the best example of the improvements in your groundbreaking new device, there’s a lot of work to be done.  Much like the Apple Watch, the beauty of the new Apple TV is in what it may become more than what it is now.  Seems like a trend.

So Eddy Cue’s right that the Apple TV is still an add-on for most people.  But that’s almost certainly not what Apple was shooting for, and it’s not what prospective cord cutters were hoping for.

Did Apple Just Take Control of My Home Theater?

Everybody knows that I’m a big fan of the up until this moment woefully ignored Apple TV.   Everybody also knows that I am itching for an opportunity to ditch DirecTV, cable and all the other old media and over-priced methods of obtaining my television programming.

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It looks like Apple may have just given  me that opportunity.  Maybe.

I really like the (tiny) look and details of the new Apple TV, announced by Steve Jobs himself at today’s Apple Fall Event.  I’m totally cool with the rent-only, no local storage thing.  I’m very cool with the 99 cent HD TV show rentals.  I love the way Netflix has been incorporated (as an aside, Netflix seems like the big winner here, and Redbox the big loser).

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Some details  I need to see include:

1. The other networks need to join ABC and Fox in capitulating to the inevitable dominance of Apple in the TV content provider space.

2. The cost of movie rentals  needs to come down a little.  $4.99 for a 48 hour rental doesn’t seem like much of an improvement.  I’ll pay a little extra for first day access, but I’m thinking $3.00 would be the sweet spot.  Maybe Apple will charge less for movies that have been on DVD for a while.

3. I need to know that I can get cable TV shows on the same basis.  I’m not asking for True Blood for 99 cents, but I should get regular cable programming at the same price.

4. I need shows to be available sooner.  The same day would be awesome.  Days later is not awesome.

My initial reaction is that for the massive amount of money I currently pay DirecTV, I could probably rent all of the shows I really care about.

I just need an acceptable combination of content, speed and price.  It’s too early to tell if we’re there yet.

But we’re definitely closer.

Update: Roberto Bonini asks some good questions about the new device.