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The past and promise of the Apple TV

Christa Mrgan | April 22, 2014
The Apple TV is like that old friend from college--pretty cool, but always crashing in your living room.

It's especially lackluster when compared to the competition: The Roku 3's less sleek but more functional remote not only does not require line-of-sight but also features rudimentary gaming controls and a headphone jack; Amazon's Fire TV offers voice search built into its remote, and even sells a separate controller just for gaming, which makes the box feel like a more serious contender in that department.

Apple's attempts to solve this problem haven't exactly been home runs. It released the Remote app for iOS, but despite the benefits — including an onscreen keyboard — it introduced its own complexities: lack of tactile controls, having to find your iOS device and launch the app every time you want to use your TV, and so on. There's also the option of using a wireless Bluetooth keyboard with Apple TV, but keyboards for controlling devices in your living room have never really taken off — just ask Microsoft.

The bottom line is that truly transformative apps will require an input method richer than moving a focus caret around the screen with a click wheel, or even speaking into a remote. We still haven't seen what a complex Apple TV app could look like — merely variations on a stripped-down theme. And while the homescreen user interface is decent, it's simplistic and wouldn't scale to accommodate a large number of apps.

On top of all of that, the Apple TV's visual design needs updating; now that we've all grown accustomed to iOS 7's slimmed-down aesthetic, the high-gloss look of Apple TV's interface feels dated and out of step with the rest of the iOS world.

The promise

The unstated but inherent promise of Apple TV — particularly the iOS-based, second-generation version and beyond — was that we'd be able to use a single device to access movies, music, TV shows, apps, and games on our HDTVs. Apple enthusiasts keep expecting the Apple TV to be to set-top boxes what the iPhone was to smartphones: not the first contender, but the best — a revolution in how we experience digital media on our TVs.

Instead, the Apple TV has stumbled into an awkward middle ground: rather than limiting it to first-party apps or opening it up to all third-party developers, Apple only adds streaming services to the platform slowly and in an idiosyncratic manner.

The Apple TV is falling behind as competitors race to do what Apple itself could likely do much better. Of course, Apple is probably working on an update to the device, but given the company's seemingly fair-weather interest, whether that will be a minor revision or a major overhaul is about even money right now. And while we're sitting around and wondering at what point the Apple TV will graduate from experiment to competition-killing set-top box, the company's biggest competitors aren't waiting to find out.


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