When Apple announced the Apple TV, the reaction was pretty luke-warm. It doesn’t do anything mindblowingly cool, such as having an app store or running games (which would make it a Wii killer, incidentally), and the content available is pretty small as well. There’s no Hulu or iPlayer, and neither is there a web browser or Flash, so you can’t go out and find content yourself. You’re stuck with Netflix, iTunes movie rentals and iTunes TV rentals - the only deals Apple closed.
Google took the opposite approach with the Google TV, sticking a proper web browser and flash video support into the platform, so that you can watch anything on the web.
Except, of course, you can’t. We got an inkling of just how naive Google was when they did the demos at the launch event with content that hadn’t been rights-cleared, which meant they couldn’t put the event online. That was just carelessness, though - the really revealing moment was when the PM kept telling people that they had ‘the whole TV ecosystem involved’. That would be, ‘the whole TV ecosystem except any content producers or channel owners’. What kind of TV ecosystem has no actual, you know, TV?
And so, sure as night follows day, when the Google TV hit the market, the US networks blocked it before anyone could get through the 34-step setup process. Odd that no-one at Google Googled ‘Channel Conflict’.
So, the design compromises that Google made turned out to deliver no benefit at all. The Google TV supports Flash, which pushes the price of the box to over $300, but it still isn’t fast enough to run Flash games, just video, and all the decent video is blocked. Meanwhile, this use model requires a qwerty keyboard balanced on your knee: it doesn’t seem even to have occurred to Google that this might not be a great UX model in the living room. There is an Android app, but it isn’t ready yet (execution, execution…). Maybe Google will learn that you can’t solve channel conflicts by pretending they don’t exist.
So far, so obvious: back to Apple TV. If you scroll down the product page there are a bunch of miscellaneous ‘nice-to-have’ features: you can stream photos from Flickr, you can watch podcasts - oh, and Airplay. Airplay lets you send any music, photos or video on your iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch straight to an Apple TV. It also works with streaming video.
In other words, if you can watch video on an iPad or iPhone, then you can watch it on an Apple TV. No qwerty keyboard, just that lovely touch-screen device you already own. Of course, TV companies can still block this if they really want to - or they can plug it into their existing paid services, such as Hulu Plus, which at least attempt to bypass channel conflicts. This will be even more appealing once Apple launches an app store, probably in the spring.
Meanwhile you’ve only spent $100 and everything works. And $100 is much easier to sell to people who, if they care about TV at all, probably already have a STB from their pay platform provider. Indeed, thinking about the Apple TV as an iPad accessory is probably as useful as thinking of it as an over-the-top video platform. Steve Jobs spent a lot of time talking about this at D8: it’s all abut the route to market, and a $300 box with no content has a tough route to market.