January I called Mike Elgan on his criticism of Apple's iPhone launch and in doing so questioned his comments about how the iPhone "undermined (the) Apple TV hype":
Apple should have focused on the Apple TV at MacWorld? I guess you don’t own Apple stock Mike? The Apple TV is a headless iPod with wireless and HD output. It’s a fun product, a strategic one even, but it’s not a game-changer.Well by and large I stick by that comment, but I've now had a chance to play with the Apple TV and follow some of the discussion over what it's actually capable of, and there's more to say on the subject. By now everyone's heard how hackable the Apple TV appears to be: It's running a modified OS X that includes its own Quartz screensaver modules (hacked), QuickTime plug-in architecture(hacked), and a network architecture that makes it possible to control it over ssh, install a VNC client and access the Internet. Installing OS X's System Preferences .app gives access to the screen resolutions needed to drive a standard Apple DVI display. All of this is of course possible because of the eminent scalability of the BSD-based OS X (soon to be available on an iPhone near you), but also because the hardware is essentially a stripped down, specialised Mac Mini (which has already made upgrading the HDD possible - if not trivial - and allowed booting from a USB drive). The stripped-down bit is important (slow single-core Intel processor, simple I/O, no Bluetooth) but not as important as the specialised part. Playing with the Apple TV interface for more than a few minutes is enough to convince that, while the main processor needs to do very little most of the time, the separate graphics processor is no slouch. Crisp, rich graphics fade and scale without any of the stuttering and general tardiness of the Mac Mini (or of the MacBook on which I'm writing). Accessing media on the Apple TV leaves FrontRow in the dust. This is a specialised box built to do a job, certainly built to a price, but one where the compromises appear to have been the right ones. Turning an existing Mac into a media centre might have been a disaster of Pippin-like proportions, but it isn't, partly because of OS X, and partly because the iPod experience has focused the new Apple on the kind of attention to detail that really matters in the consumer space. It's pure speculation on my part, and I've seen no evidence either way, but I wouldn't be surprised to find the forth-coming OS X 10.5 (Leopard), or at least elements of it, at the heart of Apple TV. I'm not suggesting this is the first 10.5 public device, but some of the accelerated graphics stuff makes me think that parts of Leopard's Core Animation are in the mix in some way. This would make a lot of sense in the medium term, making developing screensavers practically identical to the Mac (the Quartz Composer crowd must be hyperventilating at the possibilities), and unifying development with a little thing called iPhone. Why would anyone want to develop something that runs (in some form) on a 42" display and a 2" one? Well despite the big difference in screen real estate, the Apple TV has a lot in common with OS X's smallest home. Limited screen space has some of the same constraints as using a large screen from a distance, as widgets and interface elements need to take up more of the available space. Usage patterns are likely to be similar too, with users spending short amounts of time with simple, single-function widgets. There's little extended use of an individual application in the way there is on the desktop (watching a movie doesn't count, as once it's selected, located and playing, the user sits back and rarely interacts). We're likely to see the development of mini-apps that are cheap to buy, simple to install, and intuitive to operate. Think Dashboard Widgets or iPod games and you're in the right ballpark. It's important to remember that both the Apple TV and the iPhone are, like the iPod, satellites of a desktop OS X or Windows system; none of the complex configuration happens on the device itself, relying instead on a system with a mouse, a keyboard and a high-resolution display. It's this paradigm which is absolutely key to the superiority of the iPod experience over competing devices, and applying this to traditionally desktop-bound activities will be critical in developing successful apps for these new platforms. That's why, for now, there's no ability to purchase songs or movies directly from the iPhone or the Apple TV, but it's also why being able to do just that in a usable, understandable way is crucial to the future success of iPod, iPhone and Apple TV. In the final instance it's that usability which may determine whether Apple retains it's early lead in this space or not.