Thursday, March 8, 2012

The new Apple TV interface: is it a horrible design mistake, or a big hint at major moves to come?

Someone accused me of being an Apple "fanboy" yesterday because I wrote about the launch of the new iPad. Well, so be it. I'd have considered it a far bigger over sight had nothing been written.

But in addition to the launch of the new iPad, Apple launched a new version of the Apple TV. I've long considered the Apple TV as maybe the best $99 tech product out there – that is, if you own an iPhone or iPad. If not, then I can see that it may not be worth the price.

But for $99 you now have a great excuse not to watch American Idol but to instead stream your own photos and videos to your HDTV. With another iOS device, an Apple TV can become just like those old slide projectors: the perfect device to bore your guests and make them decide to never return. "Look, there is Betty Sue sliding down the slide at the water park. Isn't that cute?"

Our Apple TV is used about as much as the Comcast cable box, and probably enjoyed even more.

But yesterday Apple issued a software update for the device that brings in a whole new look. Now, instead of a series of main categories – movies, TV, music, Internet, computer, settings – one gets a bunch of app icons.

But what looks fine on an iPhone, and passable on an iPad, looks terrible on the big screen TV.

Apple should have know how it would look when it bragged yesterday that the new iPad will have a higher resolution display than your HDTV.

When I first saw the new UI I thought, oh well, something new. But now, 24 hours later, I have feel that there are three possible reasons for the new look.

The first is that Apple is losing it. John Gruber loves to link to posts that say "Apple is doomed" or "this new iPad won't sell." Maybe he'll link to here if I say "my God, did all their design people leave for ..."

But I can think of two other reasons why they've moved to this new UI.

The first is that, since it in many ways mirrors the look of apps on an iPad, this is the first move of the Apple TV to a touch interface. If one employs a remote that mirrors what you see on the TV you would want to tap the icon, just as you would on an iPad or iPhone. For now, though, the remote app on your iPhone does not mirror what you see on the TV screen. Will this change?

The second possible explanation is that by using app icons this is setting the stage for third party apps. Users have been expecting this and have been disappointed that Apple hasn't rushed into this area. But Apple doesn't rush into things unless forced to. The company just last year launched the Mac App Store – one new app store a year doesn't seem like a bad philosophy. But is this year the year that the Apple TV gets its own App Store?

Probably not, but media folk who didn't give the introduction of apps on the iPhone much thought shouldn't be caught again – the Apple TV holds promise for media app if it is ever opened up to third party apps.

(Technically there are already third party apps on the Apple TV, but these are carefully selected, highly negotiated transactions, not the total anarchy of the iTunes App Store.)

So I return to option number one – its an ugly mistake. Maybe.

(By the way, I absolutely hate headlines that have a question mark in them. I'm slapping my wrist as you read this.)