Apple’s current “hobby” — also known as Apple TV — doesn’t tell us much about Apple’s future plans for the living room.
It’s a good product under the right circumstances. But five years from now, living rooms are going to be transformed by all-encompassing systems that turn TVs into video phones, gaming systems, home automation control centers and artificial intelligence assistants.
Does Apple have what it takes to compete in the living room?
Is the Living Room of the Future Open or Closed?
The dumb religious argument about computing platforms never ends, of course.
The one conventional argument about the difference between Apple and, say, Google as platform companies is that Apple is “closed” or “integrated,” and Google is “open” or “fragmented.” You’re supposed to pick your characterization based on which side you’re on.
My belief is that Apple doesn’t look at it that way.
The pro-Apple perspective on this issue is that Apple works hard to make the user experience seamless, easy and appealing. Usually, if you’re “open,” that’s hard to achieve because you can’t control the experience. You’re at the mercy of the unpredictable decisions of third-party companies.
In areas where they can control the experience, Apple allows alternative platform users to participate.
On the surface, it appears that Apple has created two hermetically sealed platform bubbles — iOS and OS X — and has no desire for anything in these bubbles to interact with competing platforms.
But obviously this isn’t true. All of Apple’s current success with iOS can be traced back to Apple’s decision to offer iTunes (and therefore iPod and later iOS devices) to Windows users.
iTunes for Windows is a Windows application designed to create a bridge between the Windows and iOS platforms.
Apple also makes Safari for Windows, for some reason.
Apple is capable of and willing to reach out and enable non-Apple platform users to interact with Apple platforms, products and services.
The question is: Will Apple do this in its future TV offerings?
This is the question that, to me, determines whether Apple will own the living room of the future or Microsoft will.
Microsoft Does It Right
Microsoft this week unveiled an iOS app called SmartGlass for iOS.
The app enables you to use your iPod Touch, iPhone or iPad to interact with Xbox 360 in two general ways.
First, you can control and navigate the Xbox Dashboard. That includes the use of an Apple Bluetooth keyboard to type stuff into the Xbox.
And second, you can get information on games and movies that support it. That means trivia on movies you’re watching, or, say, controls and information during game play.
Xbox SmartGlass also supports Android devices and, of course, Microsoft Windows Phone and Surface devices.
Xbox itself is useful for all kinds of things, including video chat via Skype, which Microsoft owns. Skype is a multi-platform standard; you can call people on Windows PCs, Macs, Linux, phones, tablets or even regular telephones.
You can also play pretty much every kind of optical media, including CDs and DVDs on an Xbox. The next version, rumored for an October 2013 release, should support Blu-ray.
Apple Does It Wrong
Of course, we don’t know how Apple’s vision of the future living room compares to Microsoft’s current products. But so far it doesn’t look good.
While Microsoft supports most major mobile platforms for control and interaction with Xbox, Apple’s much less capable AirPlay Mirroring feature supports only iOS and OS X devices.
While Xbox’s video chat system lets you call anybody, Apple’s FaceTime video chat application lets you call only people who own Apple products.
And while Xbox supports nearly all optical media, Apple has begun shipping products without built-in optical drives. If Apple’s desktop PCs don’t have drives, it’s hard to believe their TV will — especially when they really want to sell you movies and TV shows via iTunes.
If Apple’s pattern of being “closed” to users of alternative platforms is transferred to its future living room console, then the platform will probably be a bad choice for consumers.
Xbox would be a better choice, even for people who use Apple products.
Why? Because a living room system is by definition about inclusion. If someone can’t come over and play their DVD; if three people are enjoying a game with their iPhones and the fourth guy has to sit there watching because he has an Android phone; if I can’t call people with an integrated FaceTime because they’re not Apple users — then what’s the point of even buying one?
In the past decade and a half, Microsoft has been failing as a PC platform company. They’ve been a mixed bag as an enterprise and business platform company. And they’ve been an abject failure as a mobile platform company.
But in the living room, Microsoft is doing everything right.
Apple would be wise to follow Microsoft’s lead, at least in terms of being open to alternative platforms and standards.
Because if Apple won’t support the world’s many standards for phones, tablets, video conferences and media in the living room, Microsoft surely will.
(Picture courtesy of iMore.)