What is iTV?

A lot of people are very excited about it. I must admit, the features sound quite convenient. But there are a lot of things it could/could-not be.

For one, I don’t think it is a “computer”, though it obviously has some processing power. And I don’t think it is a DVR. I think it is basically an Airport Express on steroids. It basically gets its data across either a wired or wireless network, it receives the infrared commands (which it relays to your computer), and your computer does all the work. So it is a remote station for your computer, not a media station. That means your computer must be on, in order to service the iTV. This helps Apple dramatically lower the cost and parts count, and eliminates redundancy. They don’t need as much computing power, memory, hard-drive, etc., in the iTV. They can get away with all solid-state storage (possible), it is just a video playback buffer and remote video connection. Think of all the licensing stuff it avoids by NOT having iTV as an actual computer running iTunes (and its own copies of media on it), but that it is just a remote player for them! It would have the downside of if you’re having problems with your computer, then you’d be having problems with watching movies. If the network was spotty, then the media would be spotty.

Of course I could be wrong. Apple could have stuffed a hard-drive, lots of memory, and whole operating system in there. It could be a stand alone device that doesn’t require any computer at all, and is basically a turn-key multi-media workstation. But if they did that, I’d have a lot of questions; why no iPod dock or USB (to allow an iPod dock)? If you already have computing power of that order, then why not OSX and allow games + DVR functionality, and so on? Some could argue that the next iPod will have wireless or ethernet, thus not need a dock, but I find that unlikely; Apple wouldn’t want to eliminate the millions of iPods they already have, if they could easily make them work with this device directly. Thus it is an indirect device. No, I think Apple looked hard at what it didn’t need to be, and removed all that, until it came down to the lowest cost device it could be — which is just a remote connection for your computer, and let your computer do what it is good for. This way you can upgrade your computer separately from the iTV.

Or it could be a hybrid device that can store ONE movie/song, or a fragment of, and requires the computer for everything else. It could have part of a whole solution, but still be dependent on computer for others. Some features being stand alone, others being dependent. Even if it is hybrid device, I suspect it leans towards being a dependent peripheral than a stand-alone device.

So the most likely is it is actually a very simple device. And if I’m right, then the real magic isn’t in the hardware, but in the software. Sure, the hardware is cool and “spiffy”. Nice package, nice design, looks good, works good. Obviously it has to have some computing power. But the big deal will be in how well it integrates with your computer. What has to be running on your computer for it to work? A few background tasks and services? Or do you need to be running full iTunes to be able to service this device? Does it connect directly to the internet, or more likely, use your computers connection to the internet? (If the latter the device itself is very easy to setup — you set it and your computer to talk to each other, and assuming your computers is working, then your device is). That’s actually a lot of software to allow iTunes to be both servicing multimedia content, and being the traffic cop to a device that is displaying it, and maybe even having some upgrade capabilities for iTV.

The upside, if I’m right, is that Apple will be able to get the costs down and margins up. But there are caveats. If I only have a laptop, I don’t want it to have to be on, to be servicing my iTV. But the answer is “tough” — I have to either give part of my computing power to iTV, or buy a computer to do that for iTV. Of course, I don’t have JUST a laptop, and can easily leave my mini running — and people can buy a mini, and stick it on-top to be the service device. But I think the device is a similar form factor to a mini for a reason; Apple hopes to sell mini’s as a host device for an iTV and eventually as a hub for doing lots of things around the house. Then it has everything; you can have a turn-key solution, that has almost everything you want in an entertainment solution, with the caveat that Apple needs to add PVR software and a Tuner solution to a MacMini, and the gain (for them) that they sell a lot more mini’s as a whole home hub.

Another big question is why pre-announce? My first suspicion is that when Apple says, “802.11” they mean “802.11n or 802.11x” — one of the variants that isn’t fully formed. 802.11g probably BARELY has the bandwidth alone, but the newer protocols would guarantee it, and explain why Apple is waiting — because the full standard isn’t finalized and the chipsets aren’t in full production yet. As well as the amount of software they have to complete.

But my point is that in many ways people don”t even know what iTV is yet. They know where it goes, and a small fraction of what it can do for them. And that is a lot of the important stuff. But how it works, what its limitation are, and other stuff, all will tell me how much impact this device can have. How easy will it be for others to copy it or undercut its price? How far will Apple go in software and features.

I think Apple is being very smart in trying in multiple solutions together, and eventually owning our entertainment experience — and by making this a device, that is locked into their other software solutions, it is increasing the value of all of them. “You want the simple experience of this device; sure, but it works with iTunes and iPods”. Apple has learned from Microsoft’s “tying” technologies together, and going to flog them with it. I can already tell that this is a cool device, and Apple is changing home media. If I can have the same songs and movies that are on my computer(s), playable on my TV’s, or on my iPod when I travel, this is way cool. That I can only have this level of integration with Apple’s solutions, just smacks the others out of the market, and guarantees Apple’s position in the market for a long time.


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