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Commentary: Apple Has Lost Its Way with New Apple TV

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If the future of TV is apps, as Apple CEO Tim Cook stated in this week's keynote, why does the Apple TV still feel like it’s designed for a channelized universe?

Apple has always referred to its Apple TV product line as a hobby, as far back as the late 2006 launch of iTV (renamed to Apple TV to avoid litigation). Steve Jobs at the time even referred to it as a “work in progress” when Apple TV started shipping in March 2007, which allowed the company to sell what was essentially a beta product with alpha software.

The initial version had one thing going for it: significant onboard storage, starting with a 40 GB hard disk, which raplidly espanded to a 160 GB model by mid-2007. The company understood the need to store content on the device, much of which was content users generated themselves through iMovie or other media production applications.

This was early days for set-top boxes, including those with large-capacity digital video recorders (DVRs), but the Apple TV wasn’t really designed to record television shows, TiVo style, as Apple really wanted users to buy content on iTunes and download it to the Apple TV to watch at a later date.

Apple first integrated into its own ecosystem—the iTunes universe—with the first-generation Apple TV. At the time, iTunes was so strong a presence that Apple launched an mid-2008 app for iPhone and iPod touch called the iTunes Remote.

With the iTunes Remote app, users could browse through content and play it from the Apple TV itself. If content wasn’t on the Apple TV, as in the case of iPhoto or iMovie still images and video content, iTunes Remote could forward it to the Apple TV to play it. In this way, Apple was well ahead of its time in terms of the “casting” craze we’ve seen recently from Google and other companies.

Unfortunately, Apple ditched that whole model when it came out with the next version of Apple TV. As with any hobby, when plans change, there’s no need to maintain backwards compatibility. So the second-generation Apple TV, launched in late 2010, dropped the hard drive completely and offered only 8GB of storage.

The initial impact of that decision meant very limited content storage, but it presented further challenges. First, despite the App Store having been in full swing for several years, and the iTunes Remote having almost two years under its belt, Apple chose to move away from the iTunes Remote. This was a mistake: At a time when more and more content from the iTunes Store was available for streaming, users were forced to enter content—from passwords to Wi-Fi access points to movie or TV titles—with a four-arrow-and-enter-button silver remote that had first shipped with iMacs and MacBook laptops that had the Front Row media playback application.

For the Mac computer owner, this simplified and elegant remote was a convenience, but the second-generation Apple TV turned it into a cumbersome necessity. What should take several seconds now took minutes, whether choosing a channel or entering authentication information.

The silver remote has been around now for more than a decade, with no change at all until this week's announcement of the new fourth-generation Apple TV remote. But over the past several years, competing products such as Roku set-top boxes and the Amazon Fire TV Stick have expanded both the functionality and the number of additional buttons on their own remotes.

The reasoning behind each of these remote enhancements was solid—to allow for gaming, offer shortcuts to key channels, and even to add voice searchability—but none of them had the solid design principles of the original Apple TV remote.

My sense, seeing the new Apple TV remote, is that Apple has lost its way with Apple TV input devices. It is as if Apple chose to copy other poorly designed remotes rather than innovate an input device worthy of a world where streaming video is front and center.

What’s even more disheartening about this most recent Apple TV remote, as it was presented this week, is that it’s even more cumbersome without having the basic design aesthetics Apple has been known for. It isn’t intuitive, and looks more like a badly designed version of a competing product’s remote rather than a thoughtful design.

Why not go back to the iTunes Remote app, especially since the new remote still lacks a way to quickly enter letters and numbers? That’s a good question.

The answer may lie in the fact that Apple will derive significant metadata—which can then be sold to advertisers and content owners—if the Apple TV moves from hobby to mainstream device, thanks to the new tvOS that Apple also announced as part of its move towards an app-based TV future.

The new remote relies on a combination of a touchpad and the famously inaccurate Siri digital assistant, coupling basic finger swipes and clicks with voice activation. That’s a patently bad idea.

Even looking beyond the idea of having to speak to your TV remote, there’s the question of whether Siri will surface content from apps that one might have intentionally pushed down the screen to keep it away from prying eyes.

In addition, there’s an ongoing privacy concern: Since Siri is essentially required to select apps and play content, Apple now knows what you watch, when you watch it, and possibly even what you say while watching it.

I’m not a paranoid conspiracy theorist, and my family’s education accounts are long on AAPL, but I am concerned about the loss of privacy and the additional  targeted advertising that could result from abuse of the data Siri gathers. And since the new Apple TV is clearly designed to be used for streaming, and not downloading and storing content offline, there's virtually no reason to use it in a non-internet-connected environment.

To add to the confusion, the whole concept of apps replacing channels appears fundamentally flawed when compared to the hardware options for the fourth-generation Apple TV. Based on the keynote launch of the new Apple TV, consumers  will have the choice of either 32 or 64 GB worth of onboard storage, the bulk of this will be taken up by apps.

Apple has said that apps will be limited to no more than 200 MB in size, but that means the scale of TV "channels" in Apple’s app-driving TV future will be limited to about 275 options in the 64GB version. That doesn’t even account for buffered content, though, so the number is probably closer to 200 channels.

That’s a whole lot less choice than today’s typical cable TV offering, especially when one considers that each cable TV channel can broadcast multiple types of content that will—in the Apple version of our TV future—each be housed in a discrete app.

It’s often foolish to bet against Apple, but it seems the Apple TV has a number of ill-conceived design limitations, a few outright flaws, and a serious privacy issue. We’ll keep an eye on the $149 fourth-generation Apple TV’s progress between now and its scheduled launch in October, to see if Apple addresses any of these multiple concerns.

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