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Summary:

Looking through Apple’s current lineup of products, there’s one that stands out as the sad little orphan: the Apple TV. Apple itself has gone out of its way to lower expectations for this product, with Steve Jobs calling it a “hobby.” The problem with the Apple […]

AppleTV-server

Looking through Apple’s current lineup of products, there’s one that stands out as the sad little orphan: the Apple TV. Apple itself has gone out of its way to lower expectations for this product, with Steve Jobs calling it a “hobby.”

The problem with the Apple TV is that its feature set just isn’t particularly compelling. Streaming my music to my television? My television is for watching stuff, not listening to stuff. Renting movies? Netflix or my local video store offer a much larger selection with better prices and terms. Buying movies and television shows? TV is free and DVDs are cheaper and more flexible than iTunes movies.

As you can see, the Apple TV has a problem. Behind that slick interface is a product that’s outclassed by competitors like Tivo, Roku and game consoles. So how can Cupertino save Apple TV? How about turning it into the center of your digital media life? Today, the Apple TV acts as a peripheral component of your computer, instead let’s turn the tables and turn your computer into a peripheral component of the Apple TV.

How It Would Work

Here’s how I imagine it would work. Turn on the Apple TV and it would immediate scan your networks, both wired and wireless, for Apple devices. After a simple pairing process, the Apple TV would immediately begin copying every piece of digital media found on any paired Mac to its own hard drive. If you have two or more computers in the house, it would compare your libraries and combine them so that you have a central repository for all of your digital media. You could then choose to synchronize missing items back to individual computers automatically, or copy items manually from the Apple TV to your Mac.

Apple has already taken a step in this direction with iTunes 9, which can tell you if other computers in the house have music you lack, and even synchronize automatically. The problem with a direct computer to computer solution is that with the growth of laptops, the amount of time two computers are in the same place and turned on is much less. With an Apple TV you have what amounts to a single-use computer that always sits in the same place and can handle all of the synchronization needs.

In fact when you think of the Apple TV as a computer, the possibilities become much greater. While you’re away, the Apple TV could download new television episodes and podcasts, which would be automatically synchronized to your laptop when it arrives back home. It could also monitor your iTunes account, so if you purchase a song on your iPhone while out and about, the Apple TV would automatically download that song and share it with computers at home before you even get back. And while we’re at it let’s also download software updates for your Mac and have them available for install when you walk in the door.

Hub for iPhone and iPod

Of course Macs are hardly the only Apple device on which we want our digital media. There’s no reason why an Apple TV couldn’t sync directly with your iPod or iPhone. Mac users have been hoping for wireless sync for a long time, but the slow speed of wireless networks have been a problem. Once again you can take advantage of an always on device. There’s no need to set up sync between your Mac and iPhone, instead the minute you walk into your home your iPod/iPhone would begin synchronizing with the Apple TV. If there’s particularly large content, like television shows or a movie, the synchronization could happen overnight while you sleep. You could wake up in the morning and walk out of the house with all the latest content in your pocket. Oh, and let’s also have the Apple TV download any app updates and install them automatically while you’re at home.

Internet Availability

What else could you do with an always on, always connected computer? How about making all of your media and files available over the Internet anytime you want them? Just connect to your Apple TV and stream all of the media on the device directly to your Mac, iPod or iPhone. Flip a switch in the preferences and the Apple TV could store a copy of your home folder, available anywhere, anytime through a slick online interface. Once again this is something Apple is already doing with Mobile Me and the Airport Extreme, but let’s make it easier and automatic.

With the 40GB Apple TV consigned to the dust bin, most users will have plenty of storage with the 160GB model, but just in case, Apple could finally make use of that USB port on the back and let you plug in any external hard drive to gain more storage. Once connected it would automatically be configured to provide overflow storage without any need for configuration on your part. Again, we want the power of a small computer, which the Apple TV is, without the complexities.

A Simple Software Update

All of this could be done with a software update, so every Apple TV already purchased could receive these features. Of course much of this could also be done with a Mac mini, Chronosync and some hackage, but the value proposition is a $229 set top box that not only puts iTunes content on your TV, but manages all of your digital media across all of your devices. Media servers have been around for a while now, but it’s time for Apple to do it better than anyone else, and cement the Apple TV’s place in the digital living room at the same time.

  1. I would love to see Apple do something like this. Make it more of an Apple Home Server. Get all the core apps in the mix, like iPhoto and iMovie. I run into real issues with keeping things in sync between my multiple Mac household.

  2. Apple tv and time captsule should be one device.

  3. You claim that listening to music on the Apple TV is not compelling. And on a TV alone, certainly, you are right. But for those of use hooking the Apple TV up to a receiver, with high-end surround sound speakers, it is the most compelling feature of the Apple TV–an iPod for our home theater, streaming all of our iTunes music from the computer in the next room. Combine the Apple Lossless codec and the optical audio out of the Apple TV, and you have a damn fine hi-fi source.

    90 percent of my Apple TV time is spent on that feature alone, and from reading around forums and whatnot, I suspect I’m not in the minority.

    1. Kyle,

      I agree that music via the Apple TV can be a compelling feature for some, but I don’t think it is for most people, and I don’t think it will get the masses to shell out over $200 for a set-top box, which is what Apple needs to figure out.

      -Alfredo

    2. You made a huge mistake then; if you spend 90% of the time using it to listen to your music, and you wanted an pricey Apple solution, you should have sprung for an airport express. Optical out audio to your nice speakers for $100…

    3. You’re totally wrong, Alfredo. Many of us — maybe even most — who bought the initial version of the Apple TV (well, 2.1) did so to have an elegant interface for a large music collection. Like Kyle, I’ve hooked my ATV up to a very good receiver. The results are fantastic, and I haven’t fumbled through CDs for over two years.

      The addition of movie rentals, etc., was great, and I would dearly like to see it evolve further. But I bought it for music. And J David, you’re wrong, too: unless your computer is in the same room as your stereo, have fun running through your house every time you want to change a playlist, etc. The Airport Express in NO way challenges the ATV. It has no interface.

  4. I’ve got more than 23,000 lossless audio tracks streaming to my Apple TV, and it’s a pretty damn good experience.

  5. What I would give to see this stuff come true. And I agree with Kyle that music is a huge component of this.

    Because I don’t own one of these babies, before I would ever purchase one, it would have to output 1080p video and some very high-end lossless audio (DTS-HD or TrueHD).

    Is the AppleTV in its current incarnation capable of this now — or is just something to add to the wishlist?

    Thanks — Keith

  6. A very good post, those features would go a long way and increase the value of Apple TV.

    One area that I think would transform Apple TV, is the TV show section. At one point I was very close to ditching cable and just using Apple TV – why? I could download most of my favorite shows and movies. What stopped me was the ‘live’ effect of TV – news, sports, shows that you want to watch live. If Apple could provide this content, then it could compete with cable and satellite while adding all the other features that cable & satellite couldn’t compete with.

    They could also offer ‘packs’ of programs at discounted rates and maybe even add advertisements for cheaper alternatives. I was working out that I may watch 6 shows a week – that’s about $50 a month with the advantage of ad free. My cable is more than that but I still want the ‘experience’ of live TV incase news breaks, a sporting event comes on or a live talk show, etc. If Apple can duplicate this ‘experience’ of TV… they’ll be onto something HUGE!

  7. Wednesday Morning News | MacTalk Australia Tuesday, September 29, 2009

    [...] an Apple product people therefore believe that they think it can be improved. Here’s one idea on how the Apple TV can become a greater part of your digital [...]

  8. I don´t think the product described in the article is an Apple TV, but an Apple Home Server, which I would love to see, and will be in line to be the first to buy it.

    To me the problem of the Apple TV lies in that it is closed to Apple Content. I believe Apple should take the same approach it took with the iPhone/Ipod Touch, and open it to developers and let users get content into their TVs through it. such an approach should create an environment where developers will find new more compelling ways of getting content into our living rooms and should make for very interesting competition against the networks and Telcos.

    How about a skype app through my TV? Or netflix delivering content directly to my Apple TV? or being able to buy at amazon directly from the TV viewing large pictures of the products? I think the possibilities are endless, not sure why apple wants to wall it iTunes store garden…

    1. Andres,

      I know that putting other forms of content on the Apple TV has certainly been suggested as a way to “fix” the product. I just wonder how likely it is that Apple and Steve Jobs will open it up to other content providers given that the whole point of the product seems to be to push iTunes content. I don’t think it’s impossible, but I wanted to explore other ways that Cupertino could make the Apple TV compelling.

      -Alfredo

  9. The features of AirPort Express, AirPort Extreme, Time Capsule, and Apple TV could all stand to be condensed into at least one less product.

  10. I love my Apple TV’s… I have 5 of them, all connected and streaming wirelessly to my iMac, of which I have a 2TB external which houses all my digital media (movies, music, photos, etc.). I rip my movies with hamdbrake and store them on the external and stream them to the Apple TV. there is nothing on my Apple TV harddrive, which is perfect for me, because I hve way to much stuff to keep on one ATV and don’t want to decide which room gets what media. I have my entire library at my fingertips, without worrying about scratched DVDs, or my kidsoving things betweenrooms or damaging media. My friends are always incredibly impressed by the convenience and lack of huge shelves full of CDs and DVDs. The ATV is plenty versatile, but it seems that most people aren’t using it’s full potential. The video quality is plenty good for my LG 42″ flatscreen in 1080p. If your a videophile, then the qualityay not be good enough for you, but it’s plenty good enough for me and my family. I would like hulu and streaming content, or a tv decoder built-in or the ability to connect my eyeTV to the USB port, I would ditch my digital cable box altogether. Either way, I’m completely happy with my ATV, and won’t be getting rid of it any time soon, unless the next incarnation includes more features. My ATV is a central piece of my media center. iTunes season passes for tv shows is a great option and I purchase most of my content through iTunes anyways. Add apps and turn it into a gaming console as well, and you’ve turned a hobby into a heavyweight competitor.

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