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Apple TV Descending from Hobby to Fixit Project

One of the Apple TV’s strengths is that it’s based on Mac OS X. However, that’s also proving to be a weakness as well. Consumer electronics boxes in the living room must live up to a higher quality standard than a Macintosh computer.

After I installed iTunes 8, I noticed that the two TV shows I purchased on the Apple TV no longer synced back to my iTunes library. Worse, the "Summary" page in iTunes for the Apple TV was mostly blank and the tabs for Movies, TV Shows, Music and Podcasts were gone. Only Photos remained.

I spent some time trying to get things right again and recover the ability to sync back, but it was clear something was very wrong. I ended up restoring the Apple TV to its factory defaults and updating to version 2.1 of the OS.

After that, the Apple TV page in iTunes looked normal, and I once again had options for Automatic or Custom sync, etc.

Over the last few months, as I’ve tracked the stories about the Apple TV, it’s clear that the typical remedy by Apple, when problems occur, is to refer customers to the support pages, manuals, and discussion forums. Of course, the discussion forums, more often than not, provide a cavalcade of angry customers rather than solutions.

And just today, there appears to be an issue with downloading HD TV shows. The lack of quality assurance testing for HD downloads reminded me of an old Windows Daylight Saving Time bug.

  • Is it 2:00 AM?
  • If yes, turn back the clock an hour.
  • Done.

Of course, when 2 AM rolled around again an hour later, guess what happened?

I recently attended CEDIA where I was reminded that customers in their living rooms don’t want to fuss with geeky sounding check boxes with no explanations, forums, debugging, and Apple’s problematic code. They just want to hit a few buttons and watch a TV show or a movie. And when something does go wrong, they want to have handy, concrete steps to fix a problem. All the sync problems I’ve had, and those of other users, suggests to me that the Apple TV needs to be rethought. Version 3.0 should work like a consumer electronics box and have iron clad hardware that achieves specific and modest design functions without fail.

As good as Xcode and Cocoa are, errors and time pressures will continue to seep in so long as the Apple TV is treated as a Macintosh for customers to tinker with, endlessly update and support issues are treated with, "Did you try this? Did you try that?"

Apple never says it, and their pride in customer service won’t allow it, but all too often, the end message to the user seems to be: "Good night and good luck."

All my stereo components over the years have had lots of buttons, which is actually okay, and lots of design expertise folded in. The A/V receiver, the Blu-ray player, the HD TV just continue to sit there and perform. But that little white box in the middle continues to need spoon feeding.

My concern is that if Apple doesn’t attend to the kinds of problems users are having with the Apple TV, other consumer electronics companies with a lot more consumer electronics design experience will pass Apple by. At CEDIA, I saw Sony, VuDu, LG and others trying to do just that and making progress.

Meanwhile, we’re all just Apple TV hobbyists. Sometimes, fixup artists.

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