There were a lot of rumors and expectations ahead of Apple's much-hyped music event yesterday. As expected, Apple unveiled a new touch-based iPod Nano, and an iPod Touch sporting the company's A4 processor, its super-high-resolution Retina display, and front and rear cameras offering HD video recording and video chat via FaceTime. There was also a new iPod Shuffle, which thankfully returns to the previous iteration's design with on-device buttons and a clip to make it wearable.
While the iPods and Apple's upcoming updates for iOS 4 -- next week for the iPhone and iPod Touch, November for the iPad -- were big announcements, Apple CEO Steve Jobs also introduced a revamped Apple TV and iTunes 10 featuring Apple's new "Ping" social network for music. Both represent major moves for Apple that point to where it hopes to go in the years ahead.
I reviewed the original Apple TV three years ago, when it was first introduced. I was immediately a fan -- and I still am, particularly given the improvements Apple has made to the user interface over the years.
As many had speculated, the latest Apple TV, due out by the end of the month, relies on streaming content and has no internal hard drive like the first version. As Jobs said: "People won't want to manage storage. And they don't want to sync to their computer.... It's too complicated." And it's not an iOS device. So much for the talk that it would run something akin to the operating system in the iPhone 4 and iPad. As the Apple rumor mill predicted, though, it's much smaller than the original -- a quarter the size -- and hits the $99 price point that tends to be the "sweet spot" for set-top boxes.
There seems to be a lot to like about the $99 Apple TV beyond the new, lower price, including Netflix integration and the AirPlay feature. There's also a move toward simplicity, with a reduced number of ports. This is a mixed blessing. Sure, a lot of consumers are perplexed by the options offered by their HDTV sets and surround-sound home theater receivers. (There's a reasons Best Buy's Geek Squad and similar services seem to be thriving.) For many people, each new device they add to their entertainment system creates more confusion. Apple's decision to offer just HDMI and TOSLink outputs is a plus.
But there's a downside. While modern televisions and receivers come with an array of input ports, they generally have, at best, two of each. My own TV has two HDMI ports. My cable box takes up one of them. If I have any other HDMI device (a TiVo, the cable/satellite box or a game system, for instance), I'll have no way to hook up my the new Apple TV. Likewise, my receiver has only two TOSLink inputs. I might be able to devise a solution to this problem fairly easily, but my father and a large number of my friends won't be able to.
Another design aspect bothers me, too: the tiny size and weight. I appreciate Apple's less-is-more minimalist design, but there's something to be said for hardware with a bit of heft -- something that can't be easily knocked behind the entertainment cabinet or pulled onto the floor by heavy cables connecting it to other devices. I can easily envision the new lightweight Apple TV -- it weighs just over half a pound -- being pulled behind the TV and onto the floor, where the cat would be more than happy to consider it a toy.
Beyond the hardware, Apple offered a stylish design update with the device. Eliminating the need to sync it with a computer should reduce confusion for technophobic users. And, let's face it, with the limited storage available on previous models, most people ended up streaming a lot of content anyway. (Some amount of local music storage might've been a good idea -- at least until Apple manages to get media companies to agree to the idea of cloud-based iTunes storage.)
While the rental pricing scheme Apple negotiated for movies and TV shows from just two networks isn't likely to improve Apple's bottom line, the addition of Netflix streaming is a big deal, and it stands to give the Apple TV a serious presence in many homes. Combined with the price points -- HD movies start at $3.99 and HD TV shows go for 99 cents -- plus a well-designed interface, and built-in access to YouTube, Flickr and Internet radio, the new Apple TV should become a serious contender against similar offerings, like the one from Roku. With the right marketing, Apple could make this the premier Netflix streaming device.
The AirPlay feature, which is also included in other Apple products, is a good addition, allowing content to be streamed from an iPad or other iOS device directly to the TV. It remains to be seen how stringently Apple will tie this to an iTunes account, which could limit the potential. In an ideal world, I could stream content from my iPhone onto my friend's Apple TV, but I suspect that level of sharing won't be supported.
From a different perspective, AirPlay could have some business applications, such as providing a way to wirelessly display presentations and video related to a project without requiring a lot of money to be spent on hardware. Given its small size and footprint -- it's 3.9 in. square and less than an inch high -- an iPhone or iPad and an Apple TV could turn into an handy portable training solution.
Apple may have given iTunes a new icon, but outside of Ping, which I'll get to in a minute, there isn't that much new in iTunes. Yes, there's the hybrid view for seeing album art in a version of list view and there's AirPlay. But that's about it.
I want to be more welcoming to the new hybrid view, but the truth is that it isn't a particularly remarkable addition. I know that I'll never use it, and I think most people can say the same thing. It's nice, but better organizational tools and help for people with an iTunes library that can't fit on their internal hard drive would've been far more useful improvements. In fact, as Apple makes iTunes a one-stop source for music, video, podcasts, books, iOS devices and almost everything but the kitchen sink, these are features that need to be added more than anything else.
AirPlay is a significant advance over the existing AirTunes feature. I've enjoyed AirTunes at home and on the road, thanks to an AirPort Express. In hotel rooms with great high-definition TV and audio devices, it's been stellar. Adding video to that is a brilliant move. Now, we just need an AirPort Express with an HDMI or component cable/TOSLink output to make audio/video sharing complete.
There had been rumors about Apple adding social network integration to iTunes for a while. I wasn't a fan of automatically populating Facebook and Twitter with iTunes playlists or currently playing songs, and I'm still sick of seeing everyone's Foursquare updates in my Twitter feed.
For better or worse, that isn't the route Apple chose. Instead, the company created its own new social network, called Ping, inside iTunes. I really want to like Ping; details about my favorite artists, including information about their favorite songs, videos and concert updates, is a great selling point. Music discovery has its potential, and sharing my opinions about music with friends is kind of cool.
But yet another social network? Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Flickr, YouTube -- aren't the five networks I'm part of already enough? Even if I'm willing to join Ping (and I almost certainly will), how many people are really willing to add to their already overextended social networking lives? Maybe tweens, teens and college students -- and possibly retirees, given recent trends -- may do so. But most 30-, 40-, and 50-somethings probably don't have the time, or interest, in another social network, no matter how well designed it is.
I think Apple has hit the ball out of the park with the new slate of iPods: The iPod Touch will be the de facto device for users who don't want a smartphone with an expensive and required data plan (yes, AT&T, I'm looking at you), and it will be huge. Likewise, the return to a clippable iPod Shuffle with physical buttons is a great move. And the iPod Nano in a similar form factor with its array of features and multitouch interface is revolutionary.
The new Apple TV could be the knockout that several companies have been trying to come up with as the next-generation set-top box. That kind of success would've been assured if Apple had been able to persuade all of the major networks to get behind it and if it had used a subscription model rather than a rental one. The jury is still out on how this one will pan out.
For me, iTunes 10 was a bit of a letdown after all the rumors and speculation, but it is still an evolutionary step forward, with a lot of promises that it may one day fulfill.
All in all, Apple proved once again that it isn't going to rest on its laurels and that it does listen to its customers. The question now is whether the customers will return the favor.
Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. He has been a Computerworld columnist since 2003 and is a frequent contributor to Peachpit.com. Ryan was also the co-author of O'Reilly's Essential Mac OS X Panther Server Administration.