Apple will be launching some interesting products on Wednesday. The timing is nearly right for its Intel Skylake laptops and PCs. The iPhone 6S is also due, and typically the smart Apple customers wait for the S, because S models have fixes to the earlier model’s problems that most annoyed users. At the very least, the iPhone 6S is expected to avoid its predecessors’ bending issues.
However, the most interesting product may be the updated Apple TV. The old product, while pretty popular for something Apple didn’t focus on that much, has gone well beyond its use-by date and is in dire need of a refresh.
The problem is that Apple, like pretty much everyone else, hasn’t been able to get the content deals it needs to make it really sing — the cable companies have those things locked up nicely — so it will have to go in a different direction.
That direction could be showcased by two existing products: Amazon’s Echo and the Nvidia Shield set-top box. Apple could pull inspiration from both of these products to create a fallback strategy in light of its content deal problems.
I’ll close with my product of the week: a set of business-focused wireless PC headphones from Plantronics.
The Apple TV Problem
The past week was painful to watch — not just for Apple, but for virtually every company trying to bring out a next-generation set-top box. Only TiVo really stands out as a success on content, and that is because it is more of a DVR that doesn’t cut the cord.
Even Intel, with all of its strength and power, made a run at this market and failed. It ended up having to sell its unique and potentially powerful cloud-based service to Verizon, which could get the content deals Intel couldn’t.
Apple apparently is countering by creating its own movies and TV shows, but that’s not Apple’s core competence, and there’s a ton of ways that could end badly.
On the other hand, given how dominant Apple is in Hollywood and at Disney, it might be able to pull a rabbit out of its hat.
While the Apple TV will have improved — likely vastly improved — capabilities, I doubt any of us will get very excited without enhanced content, unless Apple’s emphasis is on something else amazing — and this is where Amazon and Nvidia could showcase Apple’s future direction.
The Nvidia Shield Example
Nvidia came up with its own set-top box, the Nvidia Shield, and it may have plowed the field a bit in one direction Apple could go.
Given its gaming focus, it’s likely Shield performance will eclipse Apple’s effort, but that doesn’t mean Apple couldn’t go after a gaming opportunity as well. It has been very good at capturing developers and has been building up gaming competence for some time. A number of games that currently are played on the iPad should be able to scale to the larger screen with some success. That’s one way Apple could emphasize the Apple TV’s enhanced capabilities and take folks’ minds off the programing shortfall.
Granted, for serious gamers, the Nvidia product should remain the better choice. However, in much the same way that Nintendo did, Apple could carve out a niche of casual games. Although it would fall under Nvidia and the other gaming console products, a Wii-like offering from Apple still could be very compelling.
The Shield set-top box also showcases the benefits of enhanced music support (Dolby 7.1 surround sound), and Apple’s Beats acquisition makes this an ideal area for it to focus on as well. I’ve often wondered why Apple didn’t make a bigger push for making Apple TV a great music player before now, given its massive success in this segment. It likely could approach Nvidia’s position on music quality and match it on music breadth. (Both basically use the same general sources.)
While Amazon is pushing its Siri-like Echo product as some kind of an in-house assistant, most folks who have used it for a while praise it’s voice-activated music capability the most.
Apple clearly has the parts to make this work even better than Amazon does, with expected Siri enhancements like IBM Watson integration, which should make her far smarter.
While Apple TV likely will need to be connected to some kind of amp/speaker and not be as standalone as Echo is, the end result should sound far better and have far more utility than Echo does. It will connect with the entire Apple ecosystem, giving users unprecedented voice command capability over a variety of audio and video content. It likely will eclipse Echo but goad Amazon into developing a blended Fire TV/Echo product, which could be equally cool.
Wrapping Up: Set-Top Box Wars
While it is sad that Apple TV likely won’t be able to get the TV content it needs to really sing — there are ongoing efforts to break open the cable company gridlock, eventually — it still could be an amazing product if it were to go after gaming more aggressively, enhance sound like the Nvidia Shield offering, and incorporate a better voice command/digital assistant, which Amazon’s Echo has showcased.
I expect both Amazon and Nvidia will be watching this launch closely. It will be interesting to see whether Apple TV can garner more excitement than the companies’ other products are likely to generate.
An increasing number of us are living on our PCs much more than we did because our voice and video communications increasingly are coming from there rather than via our phones. What is kind of fascinating for me is that many of the capabilities folks are getting excited about now were available back in the 1980s on ROLM PBXes — but that industry imploded, and we’re now getting them on VoIP systems tied to our PCs and mobile devices.
Key to this is the headset, and the Plantronics Voyager Focus UC headset is a case in point.
At US$299, this headset isn’t inexpensive, but this is a product you’ll likely put on in the morning and then take off when you leave work — or in my case, my home office — at night. It has to be comfortable, wireless, and have excellent sound quality and battery life.