Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:
When Apple first released details about what is now called Apple TV, I wrote that it would create a DVR dilemma for the Cupertino company, one that it decided by bypassing DVR functionality (at least for now). The result will be a product that avoids many setup foibles and complexities of digital video recorders while allowing use of the increasingly versatile streamlined Apple Remote. There are three main reasons why Apple's digital media adapter will trump its predecessors, but it may not yet be enough to catapult digital content into the living room the way the iPod did into our pockets.
First from a technology perspective, Apple TV is one of the first digital media adapters to support the draft 802.11n standard. If the PCs from which it is obtaining media also have this fast a connection, Apple TV should be able to obtain digital content much faster than previous products. 802.11n should certainly be fast enough for standard-definition compressed video and reliable enough to carry movie trailers from Apple's Web site without stuttering.
However, as good as 802.11n is, few if any unlicensed wireless technologies are completely immune to interference and range limitations, which is why the inclusion of a hard drive is a great boon for this device class. As I wrote when I looked at Brookstone's hard disk-based SongCube last fall, there are many advantages to using a "sync and store" scenario for digital content devices on a home network. These address the reliability and performance of local storage while eliminating the need to manually update a device with the latest content. Managing this cache, however, can require a bit of configuration; Apple will need to make some tradeoffs here.
The second advantage Apple TV will have over other digital media adapters is commercial video content, or at least easy access to it. Because Apple has become the leading seller of Hollywood TV shows (followed by the recently launched Xbox Live video service), consumers can queue up TV shows or movie purchases and have them delivered to the big screen. Apple is clearly hoping to jump-start a virtuous circle here, in which the availability of a clear path to the television spurs demand for digital content, which spurs demand for Apple TV units.
It's a more direct relationship than Apple has enjoyed with the iPod, which didn't rely on the iTunes store for its meteoric rise. The Walkman provided a clear model for the success of the iPod. There is no such precedent for Apple TV and consumers have yet to express the collective need to move PC-based content into their living rooms. In fact, in some ways the Apple TV model reverses that of the iPod, and is one in which digital content purchases will have more weight in spurring device sales than vice versa.
Third, AppleTV will enjoy distribution in Apple's phenomenally successful retail stores. Previous DMAs have proved flummoxing to retailers that wrestle with whether to put them in the networking or AV departments. Demonstrating AppleTV effectively may not be simple even for Apple, but its retail stores' simpler focus and knack for attracting those interested in the digital lifestyle should help Apple TV's entry in the fledgling category.
Unlike the iPod (but like the iPhone), Apple TV will be cross-platform from its first day on the market, continuing Apple's embrace of the tremendous base of Windows users. But there will be other requirements that the first iPod didn't have -- broadband and a home network, the latter of which exists in about a third or fewer American households. In such homes, Apple TV will test whether the challenge to bridge the PC and TV has been due to lack of design, lack of content, lack of appropriate shelf space or, in Apple's worst case, lack of interest.
Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group and a contributing editor for LAPTOP. Views expressed in Switched On are his own. Feedback is welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.