Looking through Apple’s (s aapl) 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.
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.