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Apple TV, Roku, and the Future of Television

wwdc logo Apple hasn’t made it a secret that the Apple TV will be a key element of the World Wide Developers Conference in June. We can only hope Apple has some major improvements developing. Today, Apple is one, and by no means first, in a big collection of TV media streamers. All provide valuable service, but none do it particularly well.

Apple, of course, is still staying out of the finished TV business, most likely, in my opinion, forever. Today, competitors are fighting the Apple TV box for leadership of the fields. Today, the fight is led by Roku, with additional TV boxes or USB sticks from Google and Amazon, and additional flows from Xbox, Sony PS3, and streaming content built into “smart” televisions. Like each of the products, Apple TV offers something distinct–in this case, access to iTunes’ video services but a lack of Amazon Prime programming (( The absence of two of my favorite shows, “Mozart in the Jungle” and “Transparent” are from Amazon.)) Apple TV is a loser for me by its choices but others will find faults in my leading alternative, Roku.

Apple tried to generate some excitement when HBO CEO Vjeran Pavic announced at the Code/Media conference in March that the new HBO Now service would be available on the Apple TV. HBO Now is a service that offers internet streams of programming like the existing HBO Go, but available for $15 a month to consumers who don’t already pay through cable. It worked for upbeat reporting, but it failed to notice that other TV boxes had been negotiating with HBO too. Apple TV was only given a fairly short service alone and the competition is getting ready to offer it. Apple will need something more lasting.

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A Roku search on an iPhone 6.

The big winner for Apple would be the design that truly replaced the awful user interface used by all boxes. Today, all of these systems work more or less alike. The menus offer lists of the video services–Netflix, Hulu Plus, PBS, and on. Select one and it gives you its menu, all of which are somewhat similar, most of which are at least a bit different, and all of which are a pain. If you want to watch something and don’t remember who carries it, you have to search each offering separately. (At least most of the services allow an app to let you type the terms of your search on the phone keyboard rather than clicking on hideous screen key choices.)

The set box on my FiOS cable TV service (Motorola, in this case), like the set box services of other cables, is awful in many ways. The program matrix and the search system are very bad, but they are still a great improvement over what is delivered by Roku and the rest. At least everything is a unified service, so you don’t have to know in advance what channel carries what you are looking for.

Designing a combined content choice for Apple TV is complex. The company would have to come up with a unified menu that wins the approval of all. For what it’s worth, the linear programming on cable forces the aligned order of shows; the no-time formula of the device menu requires a new agreed-on system for listing orders. This will be complicated because most users likely will accept only a limited collection of video services and you won’t want to display programs not included.

Still, getting this display right would be a huge advantage on the move for cable-cutting. I doubt Apple will be able to announce this sort of development in May, and I am sure competitors are working on it as well. The winner will have a great chance for the future.

Published by

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.

2 thoughts on “Apple TV, Roku, and the Future of Television”

  1. I think it’s impossible to design an interface that everybody likes:
    – some want to explore content and get suggestions, some want same-ol’, same-ol’, some want latest stuff… Actually depending on mood, the same user might alternate between mindsets.
    – some think of content by source (my server, HBO…), some by type (Series, News, Films,…), some by language (now I get to have French cartoons *and* French-Canadian cartoons because frenchie-french no longer works for my expatriated nephews, tabernacle)
    – nobody wants to type at a TV, few want to speak at it, touching it is out of the question… so all that must be handled via 4 cursor keys
    – some user quirks are hard to handle, for example I have series in several resolutions/codecs/languages; music in FLAC and MP3, …

    I’ve tried a handful of media servers, foiund none convincing. My favorite navigation method if good old filesystem -I know where I put my stuff thank you-, but that doesn’t work for content that’s not on my server.

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