A few months back I wrote about what we hoped would one day be an Apple branded television experience. The idea was that Apple would come out with a big screen TV that would revolutionize the way we watch the tube today (that is, for those of us who still watch TV following a network imposed schedule of some sort). But the truth is that, to some extent, that Apple branded TV experience already exists. I am of course talking here about the $99 little hockey puck sized "Apple TV".
Interestingly enough I did not get it for the same reason that most people buy it for. Typical users of this item are looking to access online content easily (be it iTunes or Netflix for movies and TV series, or else to get the MLB.com, NHL or NBA channels for sports). Until we bought the Apple TV the only item hooked up to our main TV by HDMI was another little box called the WDTV. Current models can stream content over the internet, but our old model did only one thing, but did it well: it allowed us to hook up external hard drives chockfull of AVI and MP4 files and watch them on a dedicated HDMI channel on the family TV. Enter the new Apple TV. No longer do we need to worry about hooking up hard drives to anything, anywhere. This new little box lives on the home WiFi netwrok, accesses any iTunes library within reach that has Home Sharing turned on (a feature within iTunes) and can play that content anytime. This includes music, podcasts or even photos. In addition, anyone with an iPod touch, iPhone or iPad can beam content to the Apple TV and watch it on the big screen instantaneously.
But there is a limitation: all this works very well so long as the files being played are MP4s. What about AVI files ?I spent some time researching possible solutions. Apple does not officially support that format. There are solutions out there that involve on the fly conversions of streaming files, but that looked way too complicated. I needed somehting the kids could manage without calling tech-support every time they want to watch something on TV. I ended up discovering a neat little $7 Mac app called Beamer. Nothing could be simpler: when you open Beamer you get a little window that says "Drop Movie Here". You drag the AVI file over to that window on your Mac and just like magic the file starts playing on your TV through Apple TV. In essence any computer within WiFi range of the Apple TV can thus beam AVI files to the TV and you can use either the Apple TV included remote or any iPod/iPhone/iPad with the Remote app installed to control the video experience.
Overall I am quite impressed with this $99 little Apple product. For now it is sold as a niche product, and few casual iPhone or iPad fans are even aware of its existence. But it made me rethink whether Apple actually need to enter the physical TV business at all. The same way they now include an MLB.com or NBA channel, couldn't they include HBO or CNN, FOX and CBS ? These could even be apps on one's iPhone or iPad and would beam straight to an Apple TV. There are so many ways that this could work, provided of course that Apple find a way to convince the current "gatekeepers" to play along. One of the main problems at the moment is the fact that a great number of Cable TV providers also pump internet service into people's homes. I can't imagine the Cable TV companies rolling over and letting Apple eat into their profits without putting up a fight. But in the long term the old model of Cable TV subscriptions is bound to come to an end. Those who realise early that the rules are being rewritten and manage to roll with the punches and reinvent themselves will stand a better chance of surviving. I have no doubt that five years from now TV viewing will look nothing like what we have today, and the type of innovation that is driving that change is available to us today, for a mere $99.