April 21, 2014, 8:40 AM — The Apple TV is like that old friend from college--pretty cool, but always crashing in your living room. Its inconsistent stability, frustratingly anemic content offering, and lack of rich input methods have kept it from becoming what Apple enthusiasts long swore it would be: the iPhone of TV set-top boxes. Though its interface and hardware continue to evolve, the little black box faces real competition from faster-moving players that are offering more, like the Roku 3 and the new Fire TV from Amazon.
The past (and getting passed)
The original Apple TV was basically an iTunes accessory for your television, which had to be synced with content from your media library; it was later modified via software update to be a stand-alone device. But it wasn't until 2010, when the second generation of the device got a complete hardware and software overhaul, that things really got exciting. Now running on a version of iOS and relieved of its hard drive, the box became significantly smaller, lighter, and cheaper, and shifted entirely to streaming-based functionality.
Given the overwhelming success of Apple's other iOS devices, and particularly that of the iOS App Store, the obvious--to analysts and enthusiasts, at least--next step in Apple TV's evolution was an expansion of that universe, which would bring a wide variety of third-party games and apps to your TV. Four years later, however, there's still no clear sign that functionality is on the way. Not only are there no games, but the list of streaming services the Apple TV does provide continues to grow at an agonizingly slow pace, while competitors with lesser experience leap-frog ahead. The small but mighty Roku is the clear winner here, offering more than 1000 channels and games.
Though the excellent, it-just-works AirPlay protocol allows users to mirror the screen of an iOS device or Mac to the Apple TV, it's hardly the immersive experience that a native app would provide. Meanwhile, the offerings on the Roku 3, though often lacking the polish of what you'd find on the iOS App Store, are clearly built for the device and feel at home there. And Amazon seems to have created its set-top box, Fire TV, with the goal of making available as many streaming services, apps, and games as possible. So how is it that Apple, with its abundantly successful iOS App Store, continues to let the Apple TV languish?
Failure to communicate
The last major piece in the puzzle of why the Apple TV continues to frustrate in spite of its clear potential is user interaction. While the sleek aluminum remote that began shipping with the second-generation Apple TV was an improvement over the finicky plastic relic that accompanied the first generation, its responsiveness is still clumsy and slow--it relies on line-of-sight infrared technology--and using it for text entry is downright painful.
It's especially lackluster when compared to the competition: The Roku 3's less sleek but more functional remote not only does not require line-of-sight but also features rudimentary gaming controls and a headphone jack; Amazon's Fire TV offers voice search built into its remote, and even sells a separate controller just for gaming, which makes the box feel like a more serious contender in that department.
Apple's attempts to solve this problem haven't exactly been home runs. It released the Remote app for iOS, but despite the benefits--including an onscreen keyboard--it introduced its own complexities: lack of tactile controls, having to find your iOS device and launch the app every time you want to use your TV, and so on. There's also the option of using a wireless Bluetooth keyboard with Apple TV, but keyboards for controlling devices in your living room have never really taken off--just ask Microsoft.
The bottom line is that truly transformative apps will require an input method richer than moving a focus caret around the screen with a click wheel, or even speaking into a remote. We still haven't seen what a complex Apple TV app could look like--merely variations on a stripped-down theme. And while the homescreen user interface is decent, it's simplistic and wouldn't scale to accommodate a large number of apps.
On top of all of that, the Apple TV's visual design needs updating; now that we've all grown accustomed to iOS 7's slimmed-down aesthetic, the high-gloss look of Apple TV's interface feels dated and out of step with the rest of the iOS world.
The unstated but inherent promise of Apple TV--particularly the iOS-based, second-generation version and beyond--was that we'd be able to use a single device to access movies, music, TV shows, apps, and games on our HDTVs. Apple enthusiasts keep expecting the Apple TV to be to set-top boxes what the iPhone was to smartphones: not the first contender, but the best--a revolution in how we experience digital media on our TVs.
Instead, the Apple TV has stumbled into an awkward middle ground: rather than limiting it to first-party apps or opening it up to all third-party developers, Apple only adds streaming services to the platform slowly and in an idiosyncratic manner.
The Apple TV is falling behind as competitors race to do what Apple itself could likely do much better. Of course, Apple is probably working on an update to the device, but given the company's seemingly fair-weather interest, whether that will be a minor revision or a major overhaul is about even money right now. And while we're sitting around and wondering at what point the Apple TV will graduate from experiment to competition-killing set-top box, the company's biggest competitors aren't waiting to find out.