TV’s Future Has Arrived (Almost)
Americans used to gather in front of their TV sets on, say, Thursday at 8 p.m. and tune in to Channel 3. The upside: the whole country had a common cultural bond.
The downside: everyone had to sit down Thursday at 8 p.m.
The requirement for the whole population to watch the same shows simultaneously has evaporated as technology advanced. But what will replace the old system? Will we be able to sign up for just the channels we want? Will we pay for one episode at a time? Will the Internet become the new delivery system?
At this point, the future of TV is still up in the air, if not over the air. But already, all kinds of on-demand variations are available in the form of set-top boxes. (“Set-top” may be an obsolete term. To balance one of these boxes on top of today’s flat screens, you’d have to be in Cirque du Soleil.)
This week alone, there’s both a new Apple TV box and a new Roku box in three flavors (HD, XD and XD/S). Each is inexpensive, each is half-finished — but each could be the gateway to a disruptive new future of à la carte TV.
The new, black Apple TV ($100) is a tiny shiny box, one inch tall. It comes ingeniously packaged with its gorgeous aluminum remote and its coiled, brickless black power cord enveloped in a tiny white four-inch cardboard box.
The Apple TV works only with high-definition TV sets, and connects with an H.D.M.I. cable (not included). It connects to your home network, and therefore to the Internet, either by wireless Wi-Fi network or via an Ethernet cable.
Its main menu offers four features:
MOVIES The Apple TV no longer has a hard drive, so you cannot download movies to have and to hold. All you can do is “rent” them — that is, pay $4 or $5 and watch as they stream from the Internet.
All the usual stupid restrictions apply. You have to finish watching within 24 hours of starting. You have to start within 30 days. Not all movies are available, and once they have appeared, they may disappear again for six to nine months during the “HBO window,” as the industry calls it.
All of this makes you wonder if anyone involved with Apple TV has children. Children watch movies over and over — what are you going to do, rent the same one twice a week? (You can still buy movies from Apple, but there’s a catch — read on.)
And second, early bedtime often means that you need to finish a movie tomorrow night, which the 24-hour window makes impossible. Would it really dent the studios’ bottom line if they gave you two days to watch a movie?
Apple advertises that its movies are available the same day they come out on DVD. That’s great; until recently, you would have to wait 30 days before such movies were available online. But beware: Apple is talking about buying movies, not renting them on Apple TV. You won’t find “Iron Man 2,” “Karate Kid,” “Zombieland” or “Prince of Persia” for rent on Apple TV, though they’re out on DVD. Movie quality is terrific. You may have to wait a minute or two for enough of the movie to arrive before playback begins.
TV SHOWS Here is what could be the real game-changer: $1 a show, on demand. Imagine: you wouldn’t need cable. You wouldn’t need channels. You wouldn’t need a TiVo. Any show, any time, for a reasonable price. If any idea ever had “THE FUTURE” stamped across its forehead, this one is it.
Unfortunately, that future requires the participation of the TV networks, and few of them are playing ball with Apple. You can choose certain shows from ABC/Disney, Fox and the BBC — but the selection is pretty puny. Right now, $1 on-demand TV is a brilliant idea in search of studio executives with a clue.
INTERNET Here’s your access to YouTube videos, Internet radio (a hidden gem), photo galleries from Flickr or MobileMe, and on-demand movies from Netflix.
This feature — the ability to watch any of 12,000 movies, any time, from Netflix — is a truly great development. It’s free and unlimited if you have a regular Netflix DVD-by-mail account. This feature is built into many DVD players and video recorders, but you still have to browse and choose your movies on a computer; all you can do on your TV is watch them. On the Apple TV, though, you can both choose and watch them, all within Apple’s attractive menu screens.
COMPUTERS The Apple TV can play the photos, music and videos on the computers in your house — as long as they’re running the iTunes software.
This is a workaround for the limitations of the Apple TV movie and TV catalogs. On your computer, you can both rent and buy movies. And you can buy TV shows from dozens more TV networks. All of it is then available to watch on your Apple TV, as long as the computer you bought it on is still powered up.
The coolest Apple TV feature of all is AirPlay, which lets you send video from your iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad to your TV screen. It might be handy if you were watching a show on the plane, and arrived home to watch the exciting conclusion on the big screen. Unfortunately, Apple says that this feature won’t be ready until next month.
If ever there were a more classic case of the Apple Way versus the Open Way, it’s Apple TV’s rival, the Roku box. Apple product: beautiful, clean, simple, controlled, uniformly polished. Open product: expandable, unlimited, chaotic, mismatched, uneven quality. (See also: iPhone versus Android, Mac versus PC.)
The Roku box ($60, or up to $100 for versions with more jacks) is a larger, uglier plastic box. It works with both high-definition and standard TVs. Independent programmers can create “channels” for it — something like apps — that deliver Web videos to your TV. There are 85 at the moment.
Some you’ve heard of: Netflix , Pandora Internet radio, Major League Baseball (for a fee). Most you haven’t: Blubrry, YuppTV, MHz Network, Roxwel.
Installing each of these “networks” requires visiting a Web site and typing in a code that appears on your TV screen. After that, you’re in streaming-Web-video heaven. Weirdly, YouTube is not one of the available channels. The company says there’s a way to get it, but since it’s not in the channel catalog, the average customer will never know about it. (Ditto with gaining access to the music and videos from your home computers. It’s possible, but not built-in or publicized.)
The Roku box lets you rent or buy movies, thanks to its integration with Amazon’s video store. It lets you buy the same $1 TV shows from ABC/Disney , Fox and the BBC. In this case, though, you’re buying the show, not renting it. You can watch it over and over.
Apple says that Amazon can offer this benefit only because it’s taking a loss on every show it sells — an unsustainable business model. Well, whatever; if you want to buy or rent TV and movies, Amazon outdoes Apple. (Don’t you wish Apple held more negotiating sway with the studios?)
So here we are, at the dawn of the new on-demand era, with various companies jockeying for a leadership position — the first Google TV boxes are on their way — and winding up with confusing, poorly stocked, not-quite-there boxes.
You can choose Apple’s dazzling but limited experience; you can have Roku’s expandable, much larger selection of more uneven material; or you can wait awhile until more of the pieces are in place. The future of TV is certainly on its way, but there’s no urgent reason to park yourself on the bleeding edge.
David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org.