I love my Apple TV. At first I thought it was pointless technology that didn’t fill a niche. Then I got my iPhone and made two realizations. First, the iPhone has a drop-dead gorgeous screen that begs for video. Second? If I’m going to download the entire third season of House, chances are I won’t want to watch the whole thing on my iPhone. Ah ha! The Apple TV finds purpose!
But even as much as I now care for the little set-top box and the function it performs, I can’t help but wonder as I lie awake some cold, lonely nights how it could have been. It could have been a DVD-ripper. A DVR for the rest of us. A TiVo killer. But Steve made it pretty clear at D that DVR functionality isn’t on the road map for the Apple TV. And far from being a DVD player or ripper, Apple sees the tiny TV appliance as the successor to DVDs.
Of course, that was before NBC’s announcement that they’re pulling out of iTunes.
I can see why Apple would want to position the Apple TV as a “DVD player 2.0″. There’s a big advantage in this for them. After all, in a post DVD world where movies have gone online, Apple sells 80% of the “disks”. If they were to try to be a TiVo, they would need to sort out the whole CableCARD mess, partner with satellite providers that make dealing with AT&T look like rolling an 8-year-old’s lemonaid stand, and put together some sort of database that catalogs all program information for all networks of all its customers in all their localities. If they wanted to start ripping DVDs, there would at least be a lengthy court battle that tested copyright law and the DMCA… both of which Apple has relied on in the past.
Why bother with any of that mess when they can distribute content directly from providers? Apple gets to expand its entertainment products. Consumers get a better, more seamless way to enjoy video. The content providers get their cut. Everyone’s happy!
Well, except for NBC. They want more of something (some say money, some say copy restrictions) from Apple, and Apple isn’t willing to give. So NBC says they’re going to walk. But before they do, they need to think very carefully about the ways in which this might force Apple’s hand.
The content is, after all, out there. NBC seems to think they get to say where their shows will (and will not) ultimately reside. But I can get The Office, 30 Rock, et al. for free with an antenna — in HD. I can buy the DVD collections for about what I used to spend on downloads and rip them with Handbrake. I can use any number of Elgato products to timeshift NBC shows directly off cable and on to my computer. All the above are perfectly legal. The only thing that’s stopped me from perusing any of these activities in the past is the fact that the iTunes user experience is, in classic Apple fashion, so damn seamless. It makes everything else look like some tedious rigmarole.
Of course, by pulling content off iTunes, NBC may have just made it in Apple’s best interest to work their magic on said rigamarole. Sure, it’s way easier to sell shows direct from NBC than deal with all the issues surrounding DVRs and DVD rippers mentioned above. But if the easy options are yanked out from under you, you find a lot of motivation to get the difficult ones sorted, right? And if you think Apple hasn’t already worked this out, you’re forgetting this is the company that kept a parallel intel-ready build of all their products “just in case”. If NBC’s pullout precipitates any sort of decline in sales, we’ll see new Apple TVs by then end of the year.
NBC will have, in essence, forced Apple to evolve new seamless ways to timeshift or rip NBC content so as to be consumed by Apple devices. Oh, and because this content won’t be downloaded from iTunes anymore, it will be completely unencumbered by DRM. NBC will have ensured that, In the digital world, all their content will be easily copyable. The opposite of what they set out to accomplish, I believe. But we’ll get a better Apple TV out of it, so I see no reason to complain.