The Apple TV's Value Proposition

John Gruber, on Apple’s cultural insularity and how it affects the Apple TV:

Earlier this week I wrote about my vague concern about Apple’s insular culture. Apple TV is the product line where I think that might really be a problem. Apple charges a significant premium over the average product in PCs, tablets, and phones. It works for them in those markets. That’s what Apple does and has always done: they make superior, premium products for people willing to pay for them.

But with Apple TV, I’m hearing from a lot of people who are in the Apple ecosystem — people who own MacBooks, iPads, and iPhones — who just don’t want to spend $200 for an Apple TV when they can get a Roku or Fire TV for a lot less.

John mentions iTunes as the primary selling point for the Apple TV, but I don’t see it that way and I don’t think Apple does either. When the default behavior of the remote’s home button was changed late last year, that was a clear signal about the device’s primary function — it’s all about the TV App.

With the introduction of the fourth-generation Apple TV, Tim Cook proudly proclaimed that “the future of TV is apps.” But that all changed when they released the TV App alongside tvOS 10.1. Apps were still an important part of their strategy, but it was secondary to streaming media.

The TV App offers the best experience because it bundles all (or most) of your streaming services into a single, unified interface. That’s what the Apple TV is all about. It’s a huge disappointment that Netflix isn’t supported, but even if only two of your streaming services work well with the TV App, you’re still better off using it than not.

Is the TV App alone worth the additional cost of purchasing an Apple TV over the competition? Probably not. Especially since the Apple TV is so much more expensive than the competition. AirPlay, iTunes, and Apple Music helps, but not enough.

In the lead up to Apple’s September event, when it was widely rumored that Apple would be introducing a 4K-capable Apple TV, I whole-heartedly expected Apple to drop the price of the fourth-generation Apple TV to $99. This would have fit with the pattern that Apple has exhibited over the past several years — replace the existing product at the same price point and lower the price of “last year’s model”.

If Apple announced Apple TV 4K, starting at $149, and lowered the price of the fourth-generation Apple TV down to $99, I think it would be an easier sell for most people. And I don’t think there would be as many Apple TV users looking to switch to Roku or Fire TV. Most consumers still don’t have 4K-capable televisions and “last year’s model” at $99 would be just fine for them. But of course, that isn’t what Apple chose to do.

In most of Apple’s markets, the difference between their experience — iPhone, MacBook, iPad — and the competition is vast. But on a device that spends most of its time streaming content from another company, it’s harder to see the value in spending so much more on an Apple product. The TV App, iTunes, AirPlay, and Apple Music aren’t enough to justify the additional cost for a lot of users. If Apple wants to remain a major player in this race, they have to do something soon.

From my perspective, Apple has a handful of options:

  • Start selling the Apple TV with a bundled game controller.
  • Hire (or acquire) a game development company to build titles that are exclusive to tvOS.
  • Push hard for third-party developers to build top-tier games for the platform.
  • Lower the fourth-generation Apple TV’s price to something that’s more competitive in the current market. $99 is my suggestion, but the lower they go, the better.

The best case scenario is for Apple to do all of these things at the same time, but I’m not convinced they’ll do any of them. Apple should be well aware of the problems with their offering and the announcement of the Apple TV 4K was their opportunity to address them. They didn’t. I just hope they have something incredible coming to platform soon that will position the Apple TV as more than just the expensive option.

I’ve had an Apple TV connected to the first HDMI input on my television for a decade and I’ve owned every model ever released. I don’t want to see one of my favorite products die a slow death because Apple wasn’t willing to put in the time to make it the most compelling option. The Apple TV can be the best streaming box available, even at its current price, but Apple needs to do more to make that happen.

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Living on Cellular

My wife and I closed on our new house late last week. There’s still a great deal of unpacking to do, but most of the work that needed to be done — plumbing, tree removal, and electrical — are completed. We couldn’t be happier in the new place, its quickly starting to feel like home.

One utility that we wanted to get taken care of as quickly as possible was our home internet connection. Behind running water, heat, and electricity, internet access is our most important service. The vast majority of our communication and media is delivered through the internet. Living without access, for even a few days, would be a dreadful experience.

Luckily, earlier this year, my wife and I switched to a cellular data plan that allowed us to use Personal Hotspot on our iPhones. This served as a functional stopgap while we waited the four days for Spectrum to send a technician to run a line into our home. Relying on Personal Hotspot for four days turned out to be a bit of a mixed bag, though.

I was able to connect an Apple TV and my iPad at the same time, which let us watch television while I browsed the web and checked Twitter on my tablet. The speed was quite good, too. Our cellular connection was able to sustain download speeds around 30Mbps — much faster than the 5-10Mbps I typically see while I’m at work, which is only about three miles away from the house.

But using Personal Hotspot became a chore. After some period of inactivity, iOS automatically shuts the feature off, even if you’re iPhone is plugged into a power outlet. This means I regularly had to toggle the feature back on in Settings, even if I was only away from my devices for a few minutes to grab a drink or run to the bathroom. You forget how convenient always-on internet connections are until you don’t have them.

And then there are all the modern conveniences that require a home internet connection to function. Plex being the perfect example. My wife and I use Plex to watch all of the content we own, whether it be movies and TV shows on DVDs that we’ve ripped or the iTunes purchased content that we’ve stripped the DRM from, Plex is an essential part of our entertainment setup.

We often watch episodes of Boy Meets World or King of the Hill through Plex before we fall asleep. But Plex doesn’t work without an internet connection. Even if the client you’re using and the Plex server are on the same network. I suppose I could have connected our Mac Mini, which runs Plex, and our Apple TV to my iPhone’s Personal Hotspot. But that’s an awful lot of rigamarole just to get our Ben Savage fix. We usually just ended up watching Property Brothers on Hulu.

The last major annoyance was controlling our HomeKit devices. We have an iDevices Switch in our bedroom connected to a box fan. We run the box fan at night for the white noise and the air flow. Surprisingly, HomeKit devices don’t seem to need access to the internet to function, but in order to control them from our iPhones, we have to be on the same network. That means we had the extra steps of toggling Wi-Fi on, before interacting with the HomeKit switch, and toggling Wi-Fi back off afterward so that we had access to the internet. It doesn’t sound like much, but it probably would have been easier to just get up and slap the button on the side of the switch.

After four days of this dreadful, home-internet-less lifestyle, a Spectrum technician finally came to our house and ran a coaxial line into our office. It took him all of fifteen minutes to install and we were up and running. It was probably the most pleasant experience I’ve had dealing with someone from a cable company. The guy knew what he was doing and placed the line exactly where I told him to.

Now I’ll be able to turn our office closet into the heart of our home network. It will house our modem, Time Capsule, HDHomeRun, and Mac Mini — which acts as our home server. And I couldn’t be happier to have internet access on all of our devices again, without having to fuss about on my iPhone beforehand.

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