March 21, 2007: Apple launches the Apple TV, a gleaming white set-top box with a remote control, for bringing iTunes media to the living room.
Unfortunately, the device lacks key features needed to make it a killer entertainment system. It’s something of a missed opportunity for Apple.
Apple TV builds on a solid foundation
A bit like Apple’s move into music with the iPod and iTunes Music Store, producing a streaming video device made perfect sense. Given Apple’s history — and Steve Jobs’ Hollywood contacts, courtesy of his position as The Walt Disney Company’s largest shareholder — the company seemed perfectly poised to straddle the high-tech and entertainment worlds.
Even in the years that Jobs worked outside Apple, Cupertino innovated in this area. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Apple pioneered software for playing video on a personal computer. In the mid-1990s, the company launched the bold-but-unsuccessful Macintosh TV. That weird hybrid machine melded a Performa 520 Mac and a 14-inch Sony Trinitron CRT television.
After Jobs’ return, Apple launched its enormously successful movie trailer website, which became the place to download high-quality teasers for movies like Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, The Lord of the Rings and Spider-Man. Following this, Apple started selling TV shows through iTunes.
With that success in the rearview mirror, a standalone Apple TV seemed primed to take the world’s living rooms by storm.
First look at Apple TV
Right from the start, however, it became clear that the device wasn’t Apple’s primary focus. Despite the company’s well-deserved reputation for secrecy and not releasing products until absolutely ready, Cupertino showed off Apple TV as a work in progress at a special event on September 12, 2006. (The company initially referred to the device as the “iTV,” but changed the name later after legal threats from the British broadcaster of the same name.)
Cupertino didn’t start shipping Apple TV units until March 21 the following year, however. By that time, any excitement had been eclipsed by a little device called the iPhone.
By contrast, the first-gen Apple TV wasn’t a revolutionary product so much as a Mac accessory for slinging your downloaded content to your TV. Initially, owners could not order a movie for Apple TV directly through their TV sets, despite the device’s internet connectivity. Instead, users had to download movies to their Macs, then sling them to their Apple TVs.
Worse, despite insisting that you own an HDTV to use it, the video played by Apple TV was, in the words of Fortune‘s review, “so low-res that it looks as fuzzy as plain old broadcast TV.”
Working to improve Apple TV
Apple quickly improved the Apple TV interface. On January 15, 2008, a major software update transformed the device into a stand-alone gadget. Finally, Apple TV owners no longer needed a computer running iTunes to stream and sync content to it.
A later update let customers use their iPhones, iPods and iPads as remote controls for Apple TV. And subsequent versions of the set-top box continued to head in the right direction.
For the most part, though, observers initially called the Apple TV a rare “miss” for Apple. Within the device’s first six months, Apple sold only 250,000 Apple TV units. Even Jobs admitted the product was more “a hobby” than a serious undertaking.
By late 2008, Forbes called it a notable misstep — and labeled it “The iFlop.”
Later versions of Apple TV
A second-generation model, released in September 2010, sported a much-smaller black enclosure and supported video up to 720p resolution. The third-gen model, which arrived in March 2012, looked the same as its predecessor but bumped up video resolution to 1080p (and added HomeKit support for home automation).
The fourth-gen Apple TV added key features in 2015, including an App Store and Siri voice commands. Plus, it ran on a new operating system, dubbed tvOS, which was based on iOS.
It also came with a sleek, touch-sensitive remote control that looked great but infuriated many users. Two years later, the Apple TV 4K boosted the device’s video capabilities and made the remote slightly more user-friendly.
With the launch of the Apple TV+ streaming service in late 2019, Cupertino finally may have cracked the television formula. And in 2021, the sixth-gen Apple TV 4K arrived, upgraded with a speedier A14 chip and a redesigned Siri Remote.