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Apple in the living room

Within the next few weeks, I’ll be buying myself an Apple MacBook Pro. This isn’t just a work-on-the-move computer, my MacBook Pro will be at the heart of my home entertainment, maybe even soon to be joined by an Apple TV, which could well occupy that space between the DVD player and the digital TV box under the television in the living room.

I pay more for Apple hardware because I’m confident the stuff just works. I suspect I’m no longer alone in this regard. But there are still some who doubt what Apple have achieved over the years:

“The question is, will Apple peel out on the race for dominance in the home? ‘No, I don’t think so,’ says Michael Wolf, research director, digital home, ABI Research. ‘Apple is a premium model and not for everyone. The masses are more likely to use set-tops by operators.’”

When are people going to get over the idea of Apple being the default, inaccessibly premium buy, when all the while Apple are offering computers that are pound-for-pound / dollar-for-dollar price competitive with the other guys?

People have bought iPods in their millions, when all the while there are cheaper portable music players that have things like voice recorders, FM radios and are occasional smaller that the iPod.

So why do people buy the iPod in preference to other portable music players?

Because the iPod does just a couple of things and it does them really, really well. Also, the iPod connects with iTunes in a way that’s seamless.

People will pay more if they’re confident that what they’re buying is simple to use and just works.

Quite recently, Netflix set out their stall and made what is for them a brave move into web video downloads. But once you skim through the details, it’s a move that’s more iterative that innovative.

“’Apple stands a good chance of having some success as a living room technology play — but there are serious and well-entrenched alternatives that also stand to gain significantly,’ says Kurt Scherf, vice president and principal analyst, Parks Associates.”

Yes, there are alternatives, and yes, they’ve been kicking around for years. But what have we learned about how Apple approaches a new market? As if they were starting from scratch, with the customer front & center and simplicity going hand-in-hand with their ‘less is more’ mantra.

“’The Apple TV brings more Web content directly to the TV. At the same time, however, there are a host of incumbent players and service providers who also deliver tightly integrated user experience, and who are at the same time incrementally opening up their walled gardens to more Internet,…’ he added.”

Opening up their walled gardens, are they? After how long? And for my final question: why now and why not when they first started out?

In fairness to these guys, Apple has tended their own walled gardens often enough, and seem to be sewing the same old seeds once more with their iPhone. Only time will tell whether that’s the right play for Apple. My personal feeling is that it’s not, certainly not in the long term.

“’Apple TV, [as a] one-way function of being able to store and play iTunes content is attractive, but if it had DVR [digital video recorder] capabilities for television and the ability to transport television content to other devices in the house, it would have been more exciting as a product.’”

I suspect there’s a reason for the lack of DVR functionality on the Apple TV. Offering this option might antagonize their existing content partners. After all, the dust is only just beginning to settle over similar issues with TiVo.

Plus, with the likes of Elgato doing such a good, cost-effective job of covering the DVR option, Apple themselves might feel that leaving third parties to fill this space is good enough for now.

These are still very early days and Apple still has a lot to learn. The price point for the Apple TV needs tweaking, or they need to add more functionality if they don’t want people to think twice and just buy a Microsoft Xbox instead…

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By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

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