The trouble with Apple TV

Steve Jobs' latest is a dud - and that speaks volumes, says Fortune's Brent Schlender.

By Brent Schlender, Fortune editor-at-large

(Fortune Magazine) -- Let's pause for a moment amid the worshipful buzz before the launch of Apple's iPhone in June to consider the heretical notion that Steve Jobs might be promising more than he can deliver.

It wouldn't be the first time. There was the Apple III computer, introduced in 1980, which was prone to overheating, followed three years later by an acrobatic flop called the Lisa. (Apple would eventually bury thousands of them in a landfill to get a tax credit.) Jobs' Next computer was another technological marvel, but it couldn't find a market until Apple (Charts, Fortune 500) bought the company and re-purposed its operating system for the Mac. And the gorgeous Power Mac Cube, a Lucite box that looked like a fancy tissue-box holder, was "put on ice" in 2001, a year after its launch.

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Even Apple can bungle a product from time to time, as the Apple TV proves, writes Fortune's Brent Schlender. Share your thoughts in his blog. (more)

That's not to say that Jobs' batting average hasn't improved since he returned to Apple in 1997. He's been the Hank Aaron of digital home runs. The iPod alone, which he quietly unleashed in 2001, atones for a lot of whiffs. Still, the way Apple is growing, even a nano-manager like Jobs doesn't have the bandwidth to fuss over every detail of every product, as is his wont. Moreover, his notoriously secretive company has been preannouncing products months in advance - the iPhone is just the latest - and even then has missed promised ship dates.

Take Apple TV, the $300 set-top box that Jobs unveiled last October and that finally started shipping in at the end of February, several weeks late. You don't see many ads for it on TV, even though Apple is blitzing the airwaves with iPod and iMac spots, and after living with one for the past few weeks, I think I see why. It's just not very good. It's about as uninspired as another prominent dud, the Zune, the MP3 player Microsoft (Charts, Fortune 500) launched last year. In fact, the Apple TV is so Zune-like, you'd think Jobs was so busy with the iPhone that he outsourced the Apple TV project to the folks up in Redmond. To wit:

  • Apple TV's most highly touted feature is its weakest one: It requires an HDTV, but the video you download is so low-res that it looks as fuzzy as plain old broadcast TV. It's sort of like how the Zune digital music player's touted Wi-Fi connection only lets you temporarily "lend" music to another Zune.
  • Apple TV's coolest feature is one that wasn't even intended: the screensaver, which plays an ethereal slide show of your digital photos. I guess that tops Zune's sexiest feature, which I would argue is that you can buy it in brown. Love the brown.
  • There's no way to order a movie directly from the iTunes store via your TV, even though Apple TV has its own connection to the Internet. Instead, you have to download it to your computer first. Likewise, the Zune won't allow you to purchase music directly via its Wi-Fi capability.
  • Apple TV lets you show photos only from a single computer, even though photos are the one source of HD content everyone has, and are easy and legal to share over a network. That is especially odd, because Apple TV does allow you to share digital music from multiple PCs. The Zune, in a similarly consumer-hostile way, won't let you play purchased digital music recorded in Microsoft's previous music format.

There are shortcomings that even Microsoft would not have overlooked: Apple TV doesn't have a DVD drive or a volume control on its minimalist remote or ... but enough. You get the feeling that Apple didn't create this thing because it was insanely great but in order to freeze competitors out of downloadable video.

Apple TV could have been a versatile transitional product that not only made it easier for people to use their computer-based content in the living room but also helped unclutter their home entertainment systems. Apple got the shape of the box right, and the screensaver is pretty nice, but that's about it.

So it really makes you wonder whether the iPhone, when it finally arrives next month, will be clunky and misguided despite its gorgeousness and slick user interface. Apple could turn off customers if the pricey device can't really do what it promises because of little gotchas like insufficient bandwidth or short battery life or an unusable virtual keyboard.

That's the problem with hyping a product before it comes out. It's bound to disappoint no matter how good it is, and if it isn't quite as good as advertised, well, I suppose we'll be surprised by some other cool thing. Maybe the cellphone equivalent of Nintendo's Wii. Nobody saw that one coming.  Top of page