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Thursday, September 02, 2010

Apple TV - no longer a global player

Apple TV
Less than 24 hours ago, Steve Jobs introduced the new iteration of Apple's hobby, the Apple TV. At one-quarter the size of the original and jet black in colour, it is Apple's latest attempt to gain some traction in the living room the way it has with computing and mobile phones.

The Apple TV continues to do what it does best: play films and videos in high definition through a regular television set. As before, it gets its content from a connected computer, usually wirelessly. And you can still watch videos from YouTube or browse photographs through Flickr.

But I think Apple has taken a huge step back in taking the Apple TV global. Instead, this new version of Apple's media player is now focused on the U.S. market. The new Apple TV lets you stream TV shows from U.S. broadcasters, ABC and Fox. It lets you watch Netflix films, which is only available in the U.S.

Of course, the Apple TV has always been quite U.S.-centric, with its legal limitation of showing only movies and TV shows that you had purchased through the iTunes Store (though I suppose for non-U.S. iTunes Stores' purchases, you could also watch them on Apple TV).

But with this new version, Apple is further restricting its reach. And it has done it in a huge way by removing the hard disk drive. This is the first Apple TV to lack a hard disk drive. This is because the device is designed to stream videos either through the iTunes Store or via a connected computer. Nothing is stored in the Apple TV, so there's no need for an expansive data storage medium. (Of course, I'm sure there is some storage, probably as flash memory, to store things like the operating system and a buffer for streaming, but it probably measures in megabytes or the low gigabytes, with limited free space for "other" use.)

Many Apple TV end users have taken advantage of the hard disk to "hack" their beloved media players to support other file formats, or for other non-entertainment purposes. Outside of the U.S., hacking allows owners to transfer their non-U.S. videos into the Apple TV to watch on their television sets. This opens up a whole new opportunity to make fuller use of the grey box for TV entertainment. Not to mention for storing favourite films in the device, removing the need to stream from a switched-on computer.

Also, not only has Apple removed the hard disk, it has also changed the USB port to the mini USB version. That means thumb drives, which have been the primary delivery tool for the initial step in hacking the Apple TV, are negated from use with this new device. Again, limiting hacking ability means limiting playback options.

So, without a hard disk drive, without a standard USB port that thumb drives can use, these lead to a restriction on hacking ability. And the Apple TV is reduced to being what it was originally conceived to be: a dumb box that lets you playback U.S. films and TV shows (primarily).

I'm glad I have my big grey Apple TV. People still wonder why I have it. But it works great in playing my iTunes shows. And after hacking it, it also functions perfectly in playing all other kinds of videos. Plus the opening jingle is just... grand.

Which makes the Apple TV a lot more valuable to me as an entertainment device. As for the new Apple TV, with its U.S.-centric restriction? It means nothing to me. Absolutely nada. Zero value. And I suspect that I'm not the only non-U.S. Apple fan who feels that way too.

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