What Apple Can Learn From Microsoft About TV



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.)


  • skeeterharris

    Mike – Excellent points and spot on. The Microsoft Smartglass application does a great job of providing both control and value add content to the Xbox and it’s ecosystem. While I like Apple TV it is too closed and understanding it is a “hobby” one can only hope they see articles like yours and open it up to more third party apps.

  • LDMartin1959

    Would Apple build a TV without HDMI input (or whatever the standard input port is at the time)? I doubt it. And current AppleTV device doesn’t need an optical drive in it when nearly everyone already has a DVD/Blu-Ray player. So, the question is not, “why wouldn’t Apple include an optical drive with their living-room products”, the question is, “why is Microsoft essentially forcing customers to repurchase a product that they already have and don’t need (DVD/Blu-Ray player)”?

  • TaintedSaint

    “You can also play pretty much every kind of optical media, including CDs, DVDs and Blu-ray discs on an Xbox.”

    Blu-ray on Xbox? Um no.

  • techsalot

    You sir, are an idiot. What you fail to understand is that Apple is running a business. They are not going to add FaceTime to the AppleTV just because you want it, they will only do it if it makes a profit. M$ on the other hand is flailing at the moment and is willing to try ANYTHING just to see if it sticks. I guess you also fail to remember that Apple has been doing this remote thing since the device came out. Sometimes I feel like Cult of Mac is not on Apples “side”. WTF is up with that?

  • technochick

    Well you got one thing right. Apple has a closed system so they can provide a better experience by controlling it.

    But the rest is dead off.

    Apple released iTunes for Windows because the iPod was already popular and growing and they didn’t want someone suing them for Antitrust claims saying they were trying to use the iPod to force folks to buy a Mac computer to use it.

    Apple certainly does NOT need to release anything akin to MS’s SmartGlass for iOS app. Microsoft needed to do that move because they aren’t selling like Apple’s stuff is. They need to entice folks to stay or even come to them. That’s why the app.

    What Apple needs to do to improve their standing and their ‘hobby’ is to clean up the interface on the Apple TV and create a better iOS remote app. Two things that are probably already underway. And they need to find some leverage with the studios and nets to improve quality, pricing and release timing on media including things like having Extras and LP work on iOS. Digital releases should mirror the content if not the quality in terms of features, additional languages etc. They should be before or at the same time as the physical discs not months after, and particularly in regards to TV shows, the pricing is way off. That someone is being asked to pay $5 an ep a year later at half the video quality etc is why folks torrent. Apple needs to find a way to get the studios to see this and work with them to improve legal options so casual torrent users will stop. Hell if they improve the offerings it will improve the studios case against such sites because they will literally be taking money from the copyright holders at that point in time (and not taking possible future money which is harder to codify)

  • Drmstix303

    “Apple also makes Safari for Windows, for some reason.” Made me chuckle a little bit

  • CharilaosMulder

    Great article. Some of my thoughts here. There are some things I like about being closed and having control. The lack of optical drives in a complete ecosystem is great. So do quite some other features. But the thing that bothers me most is that Apple too often takes the time to “get it just right”.

    The result? If the iTV would’ve been released 2 years ago (along the iPhone 4) with a facetime camera, voice recognition and great iOS apps to browse your content while not disturbing what’s on the big screen, and an app store for TV apps, it would’ve been quite revolutionary. If they release something like that right now, we’d fall asleep. Even if it’s all Apple quality.

  • Jonathan Ober

    “Apple also makes Safari for Windows, for some reason.” Made me chuckle a little bit

    Would the short answer be so when someone uses Safari on their Windows computer using iCloud, their stuff syncs to their Apple devices?

  • Constable_Odo

    It’s absolutely terrible that Apple can’t even build a streaming media box solution as well as ROKU can. That AppleTV is so horribly crippled considering Apple’s economies of scale and cash wealth. The ROKU has so many nice channels and supports PLEX server. Developers are always coming out with new channels for the ROKU. Apple has such a great iOS ecosystem and they don’t even allow apps to run on AppleTV. Apple is just asking for companies like Google and Microsoft to beat them in the living room. I wouldn’t care if AppleTV cost twice as much if it supported a browser, hard drives, Youtube, etc. AppleTV doesn’t allow hardly any third-party channel installations. Apple is so complacent about everything it does, so if they fall behind, they’re just getting what they deserve.

  • SethSevenyoln

    Apple doesn’t make Safari for windows any more

  • robraden

    The future of Apple TV should be really simple. Add storage to the next version and open it up to apps. Give developers the ability to make apps that use an iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad as an extended remote. Watch the market for this “hobby” erupt. The strength of the market would then give Apple the ability to better negotiate to add old media content that currently requires a cable subscription.

  • WhiteLotus

    Author’s focusing on all the wrong things here. iTunes was successful because it was the first legitimate model that allowed music to be distributed legally that allowed both parties to make money and be happy. Of course this all happened because of Apple’s ability to collaborate with the music industry to make content available on iTunes.

    I don’t know why the author is focused Apple’s ‘closed’ system compared to Android’s ‘open’ system. When you collaborate with the music studios and are able to make music, books, tv and movie content available on your devices just a click away, that’s not a closed system. That’s a system open to the best musics, the best tv shows, and the best movies we have. Maybe not the newest tv or movies, but eventually they get made available. Collaboration is the way to open things up and Apple has shown an ability to collaborate with the studios as well as the telco’s in delivering not only great music and movie content, but cell phones as well.

    Getting back on topic though, Apple recognizes the problem and supposedly they’ve been hard at work with the studios to bring tv and movie content onto the Apple TV. This is the hardest thing in the world because the studio heads don’t want Apple to control anything you see in the living room because they are scared and they’re greedy too. They say Warner Bros is the only studio willing to work with Apple on their model so we’ll see how it plays out.

    The tv studios make tons of money and there’s little reason for them to work with Apple. If Steve Jobs, as charismatic as he was, was unable to cut a deal, I really don’t see how Tim Cook would be able to do any better.

    It’s really all about the content when it comes to tv. Sure we like to play video games, but people only use their Xboxes and PS3’s 30% for games (if even that) while 70% they are using it for Netflix, web surfing or other. People are using their consoles less for games and more for tv. Given their track records, I’d say Apple has it right. They’ve always had a leg up on MSFT from day 1. MSFT has always been there to pick up the crumbs and do what they can from Apple’s ideas.

  • Shaun Green

    Interesting article but I would take issue with you on a number of issues:

    1. iOS/OSX are not “closed” systems. For example if you don’t like Facetime or your friends are not Mac users then simply use Skype for Mac instead and chat to them across any platform.

    2. Apple publishes the API’s to allow third party products to communicate with iOS devices through AirPlay. Just look at the proliferation of third party iPod speakers available and compare that with the number of Android or Windows speakers available.

    3. In order to “control the living room” Apple has to create a seamless integrated system that interfaces to third party products which is what they’ve done. I don’t see any signs of Microsoft doing that. All they’ve got is the X-Box. So if you wanted to control other devices in your home you would still have to go through the X-Box. I don’t see how that’s any different from the Apple way of doing things – control the centre/hub and provide APIs to interface to it so the user doesn’t even see a difference, it just all works together.

    4. I don’t know about anyone else but I just want simplicity in my home. I want a single simple solution that allows me to control everything from one device. I don’t want the hassle of manually integrating everything together. I wonder how many people spent hours simply trying to get their cable box, dvd player and digital tv to all play together nicely. I know it took me a while to set everything up and I’m tech savy. I’d much rather have a system whereby I just switch on my iPad, switch on my iPanel and hey presto it just works.

  • technochick

    . This is the hardest thing in the world because the studio heads don’t want Apple to control anything you see in the living room because they are scared and they’re greedy too.

    Basically yes. The studios are stuck in the past on home video, ratings etc. they are control freaks etc

    They say Warner Bros is the only studio willing to work with Apple on their model so we’ll see how it plays out.

    Nope. Timewarner is last group embracing this. They own HBO and keep all those shows off for ages. Which is why 4 of the 5 top torrented shows are HBO offerings, Game of Thrones being number one, true blood number two. They tried to keep the Harry Potter films out of the redownload system and have dropped support for iTunes Digital Copies in new films. Now it’s that Ultraviolet system. They also jerk around their broadcast TV shows. Example, Person of Interest is in season two and neither season is up on iTunes. Pricing is crap on all their stuff same as the rest. If they wanted to embrace this system they would voluntarily improve their offerings and even publicly announce they are counting that viewership alongside the Ratings for make good to encourage use rather than things like torrents.