The Living Room Takeover

A tiny black monolith of wonder.A long time ago, in a convention hall not so very far away, Apple introduced a product intended to revolutionize the living room viewing experience. It was one of the neatest things that most people had seen happen to the TV in a while, and there were a lot of people who were impressed by what it was capable of. It was loaded with all sorts of storage (a lot for the time, at least), and offered a novel way to get your media from your computer onto your TV. The sad thing is, it didn’t really take off the way other Apple products did. People liked it well enough, and it sold decently, but it wasn’t the hot ticket item that people were scrambling to pick up. That honor generally belongs to the iPhone, and now, iPad. It was a little too pricey for what it offered, and most people probably felt like the Apple TV was a sideline player.

Fast forward to September 2010, and we see a renewed focus to Apple’s efforts; their so-called “hobby” suddenly has a brand-new face, has lost a ton of weight, and can do basically the same stuff without all the baggage. More, actually. Some people still asked “Why?” but for $99, it was hard to argue against it. Those people (myself included), just went ahead and picked one up to find out what all the fuss was about.

I can tell you right off the bat that I love my Apple TV, but not for the reasons one might expect. I don’t love it because it makes watching movies really enjoyable (it does) or because my family can see all the new pictures I just imported from my camera on the TV, or because I can stream that awesome YouTube video I’m watching right to the TV seamlessly. All those things are great, sure, but what really got me excited is what the little black box represents.

Some folks have already jury-rigged a console experience into the iPad/iPhone/Apple TV. Even before that, however, before the 2nd generation Apple TV rolled out, there were reports that it would run some version of iOS. Ultimately, iOS under the hood really only exists in order to open the door to apps. With apps come developers, innovation (and, depending on the level of the APIs, usually some griping), and new software ecosystems. With iOS under the hood, we will eventually enjoy apps that talk to each other seamlessly, network invisibly, and build off of each other in synergy. That’s what got me excited.

John Gruber has a great take on the whole thing:

I think I see what Apple is trying to do with the App Store, and the potential upside for the company is tremendous. They’re carving out a new territory between the game consoles (tight control over content and experience) and computers (large number of titles, open to development from anyone). Think of the iPhone and iPad as app consoles. (Consider too, the possibility of an all-new iPhone OS-based Apple TV. TV apps! Using iPhones and iPads as controllers.)

So, basically what I just said.

The key here is that Apple would be competing against veritable giants in this space, companies that have years and years of experience creating behemoth machines that are designed for lifespans that fill the better part of a decade.  These consoles are powerful, multi-role devices that have also taken on increasing cultural significance as gaming moves more and more into mainstream culture.  Contrast that to Apple’s predictable and consistent release cycle, which, on the one hand, allows them to react quickly to shifts in the marketplace but, on the other hand, sometimes leaves customers feeling alienated.

While I tend to side more with the stability and development cycle that is characteristic of current-gen consoles, Apple’s move into this space may also spur more innovation and force the current trifecta (Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft) to think of things that Apple hasn’t.  Sony’s current offerings (PS3, PSP) are great, but lack synergy.  If there’s anything that Apple can nail, it’s synergy, and those big three will have to work hard to integrate their home consoles with other services and devices if they want to offer the consumer some more value.  Developers’ successes in the phone space have translated smoothly from the mobile  to living room space (see Angry Birds and Dungeon Hunter), and Apple sees itself uniquely positioned to make use of that transition.

Think about it: if a developer crafts a successful, top-selling title for iOS, Apple wants to make sure that the player who wants to enjoy that same experience in their living room with three of their friends can do just that.  Apple doesn’t want that developer transitioning to another platform.  Apple doesn’t want people spending their money on other people’s hardware, either.  Why buy the PS4 or XBox 720, four controllers, and whatever other magic peripherals they have for the primary purpose of playing games when instead a person can purchase an Apple TV and iOS devices for the whole family, and be simultaneously purchasing a game console and input devices?  Let’s take it a step further.  Ever heard of OnLive?  Ever seen their game console?  Does that seem familiar to you?  OnLive’s servers stream games from the cloud to your TV.  You can play super high-quality games over a broadband connection.  Apple just built a mammoth data center, purportedly for iTunes and MobileMe.  Let’s think a little further, here.  Apple is also focused more on social now than they ever were, and it also wouldn’t seem too far-fetched to use Apple’s newly-introduced Game Center to pull all their iOS users together into a platform not unlike PSN or XBox Live.  Add to that all the success that more casual titles have seen, and it seems elementary that Apple would take steps in this direction.

I don’t know what gaming in Apple’s ecosystem will look or feel like, but I have a strong suspicion that the war for the living room is just heating up.

Advertisements

It’s like speeding

When people speed down highways and sidestreets, they’re often banking on the kindness of the local law enforcement to look the other way, letting the folks driving five to ten miles-per-hour over the limit squeak by.  People are thankful for that, in a way, but they also come to expect that sort of leniency everywhere.  Small towns that rely on speed traps for revenue won’t be so forgiving of the lead-footed among us, and some folks get mad about that.  They have no right, of course; they were speeding, but that doesn’t stop them from being upset.

Enter Apple, who made news once again this morning with their apparent “rejection” of Sony’s Reader app.  People were all up in arms about this move earlier (prematurely, if you ask me), and only slightly changed their tone as more details began to emerge.  Then, we were treated to this tasty morsel:

“We have not changed our developer terms or guidelines,” Apple spokesperson, Trudy Muller, told The Loop. “We are now requiring that if an app offers customers the ability to purchase books outside of the app, that the same option is also available to customers from within the app with in-app purchase.”

Now it’s getting tasty.  Apple is now reeling it in.  They created their “walled garden” and, despite all the protests and ballyhoo about the whole kit and kaboodle being “closed,” people absolutely loved to play in it.  Everyone wants in on a piece of the iOS pie; now that they’ve bitten, Apple is bringing them in to play by the rules that were so clearly laid down at the outset.  Basically, this:

Except now it’s apparently choosing a different way to actually enforce those terms, which makes the report seem accurate after all.

So now we have an interesting predicament.  Apple is effectively charging other companies for the content that these other companies’ customers have enjoyed on Apple’s hardware using Apple’s operating system, marketed through Apple’s App Store.  Seems almost fair, doesn’t it?  It seems as though Sony is more than a little upset about the whole thing, but I think John Gruber has a good take on it:

My guess is that Sony is getting hurt because they were late to the game. Amazon’s Kindle app precedes the existence of Apple’s in-app purchasing API. I thoroughly doubt Apple is going to pull the Kindle (or Nook) app from the App Store, but I’ll bet they’re already in discussions with Amazon (and Barnes & Noble) about how these apps need to change going forward. It’s easier to reject Sony’s app as a first step toward the application of new rules because Sony’s app is brand-new — Apple isn’t taking anything away from users that was previously available to them.

Sour grapes, indeed.  But there’s more here, as usual.  This could spark a price war in the ongoing  struggle between Apple, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and (to a lesser degree) Borders.  If Amazon wants to keep its margins, it’s going to have to jack up the prices (still one of the aces that Amazon holds) or end up losing profits to Apple.  If Amazon exercises this option, people will undoubtedly be upset because that competitive pricing that Kindle owners are so famous for flaunting will have disappeared.  If Amazon does nothing and allows in-app purchasing at the current price points, Apple still gets a cut of each book sold and suddenly has a whole lot more money to throw at publishers to get their books into the iBookstore (if they even want to do that).

Ultimately, theres a lot of interesting stuff that this is beginning to imply in Apple’s future posturing and the continued role publishing will play in hardware sales and long-term sales strategies.