A Tale of Two Set-Top Boxes

At the beginning of the semester, I discussed Apple TV and Google TV in a segment on our show. It wasn’t really a review of them–after all, we’re not yet “media enough” to get companies to send us review units of new stuff–but more of an overview of their intentions. But while I didn’t cast a specific judgment on-air, in my mind, I was a bit more impressed with the concept behind Google TV than Apple TV, and kind of felt that it would go farther.

Boy, was I wrong.

The new Apple TV was announced in September at a breakthrough price of $99, refocusing Apple’s long-time “hobby” as an accessory focused on renting & streaming content for HD televisions. Last week, Apple announced that after three months, they have sold one million Apple TVs, suggesting that their new strategy has paid off.

Google TV, on the other hand, is a software platform (based on Android) that aims to bring the entire internet into the television space, and thus far has emerged in the form of a $1400 46-inch Sony television, a $400 Sony Blu-ray Player, and a $300 Logitech set-top box. Yet Google TV has, like so many other Google initiatives of 2010, has met with mediocre reviews and consumer response. David Pogue of The New York Times, in a mid-November review, said of Google TV: “Google TV may be interesting to technophiles, but it’s not for average people. On the great timeline of television history, Google TV takes an enormous step in the wrong direction: toward complexity.” Walt Mossberg of The Wall Street Journal rated Google TV as the second-worst product of 2010.

And now that sentiment seems to be reflected by Google TV’s manufacturers. According to AppleInsider shipments of Logitech’s Google TV boxes are being suspended while Google refines its software. Google also reportedly asked television manufacturers to delay announcements of Google TV products that were slated for the forthcoming CES. And Sony recently slashedthe price of its Blu-ray Player with Google TV by $100, a 25% cut, suggesting sluggish sales.

Quite frankly, though, Google has indeed made true a prediction made at last June’s All Things D conference by Steve Jobs: that efforts to replace the set-top box would generally fail because there’s no viable market. That’s exactly what Apple had learned over the past three-and-a-half-years with the original Apple TV.

Now I probably wasn’t necessarily wrong to be skeptical of the new Apple TV, nor was I the only one. In September, Intel’s CEO Paul Otellini also criticized it as overly simple, for not delivering the full internet. In a market as unpredictable as the Web+TV market, which has really never had any success stories to date, it was anyone’s guess whether the new Apple TV would actually take off with consumers or not. But here’s a few reasons why I think that it did succeed after all:

  • Simplicity, not complexity. By going to only a rent & stream system, the Apple TV offered a dead-simple means to get to content. Either you rent movies or TV shows from iTunes using the TV, at fairly aggressive prices ($1 per episode or a few bucks per movie), or you stream the stuff that you already own from iTunes on your computer. No rent vs. buy options. No SD vs. HD options. As opposed to Google TV, which had the stated goal of actually trying to increase the number of options for getting to your content. People want televisions to be simple; that’s why the remote control was invented, for Pete’s sake.
  • No(t as much) competition. The value of Google TV was supposed to be mixing television content with web content, but this actually frightened the studios, to the point where a number of them have blocked Google TV from being able to access their videos on the web. Apple TV, on the other hand, only delivers the internet insofar as offering studio-produced content from the iTunes Store, along with podcasts, YouTube, Flickr, and Netflix content. So everyone’s happy.
  • Best device integration. It took awhile before this feature came out, but AirPlay is a darned good reason to get an Apple TV. This new feature lets anyone with an iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch on the same network as an Apple TV press one button while a movie is playing, and instantly start streaming that movie to the Apple TV. This perhaps showcases a major difference in product strategy: Google is trying to bring the entire internet into one device, while Apple is trying to release a simple, lower-tech device that works great with other devices more-optimized for the internet.
  • Actually affordable. $99 is actually a reasonable price to pay for another set-top box, particularly when it’s designed in such a way that it really does enrich one’s existing experience using iTunes and one or more iOS devices. But when consumers have already paid for a high-def television, a free or cheap cable set-top box, and are paying a monthly cable bill, $300 for Google TV is kind of a lot to swallow. Heck, Roku offers a rich internet box for $60.

We all would love to see Apple or Google shake up the television industry in the way that they both have shaken up the cell phone industry. Lord knows, it needs shaking up. But despite the crappy user experience, and the belief that there ought to be some way to marry the immersive environment of television with the richness of the internet, this industry has a shell that has proven quite difficult to crack. That doesn’t prove likely to change in the foreseeable future.

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About Douglas Bell

I live in Washington, D.C., and work as a Broadcast Technician at WAMU 88.5 FM, the local NPR affiliate in the Washington metro area. My primary shift is to engineer the local feed of NPR’s Morning Edition, including local news and weather, long-form features and station breaks… and yes, the shift starts at 5 am, so I’ve got the whole quasi-nocturnal thing going on. I am also the Coordinating Producer for Ken Rudin’s Political Junkie, an independently-produced podcast and public radio program. Extracurricularly, I play cello, and participate in a church choir and a handbell choir. I enjoy discovering new places, and am constantly searching for the perfect cheeseburger. I am also known as a frequent teller of puns.