Next week, Apple could finally succeed where Microsoft has failed for almost 20 years
Getty Images/Stephen Lam
If the rumors are true, the new Apple TV will be a $200-ish machine with an intriguing new motion-based remote, a version of the Siri virtual digital assistant, and, most importantly, access to a full-fledged App Store, taking it well beyond the 60-some-odd carefully chosen media partners it currently supports.In other words, the new Apple TV will be a full-fledged computer - or at least, a full-fledged iPad - in your living room. Advertisement
If those rumors pan out, it means that we're nearing the finish line of a race between Microsoft and Apple that started way back in the nineties.
The first Apple "TV": Only in Disneyland
Apple's small-screen ambitions kind of fell by the wayside after that, until the Apple TV hit the market in 2007.After an initial marketing push, though, even the Apple TV fell by the wayside in favor of the iPhone money-making machine: The last time the Apple TV got a major refresh was 2012, and then a mild update in 2013.
Microsoft's WebTV failed to set the world on fireAdvertisement
At that point, WebTV had about 150,000 subscribers for its epynomous service and set-top box that basically provided a web browser and email on your TV screen. The idea was to give access to the Internet to those who weren't geeky enough to have an actual PC.
At the time, Microsoft was riding high off the massive success of Windows 95. Gates had recently identified the Internet as the world-changing force it would soon prove itself to be, and he wanted Microsoft, and by extension, Microsoft Windows, to be a big part of it.When the acquisition was announced, Microsoft shared plans to eventually put Microsoft Windows and Internet Explorer on the device. It wasn't a huge surprise, given Microsoft's laser focus on Windows at that point. Advertisement
WebTV was a never a huge success, but it had some hardcore fans. In 2001, it was rebranded to MSN TV, to include Hotmail and MSN Messenger support. In 2013, it was finally shut down with little fanfare.
But the legacy of WebTV is with us today: Members of the WebTV team contributed to the Xbox, Xbox 360, and Xbox One video game consoles.Microsoft took some other shots at putting a full PC in the living room. Most notable was Media Center, a version of Windows that supported a remote control and multimedia functions like DVD playback and TV broadcasting. It never took off, and with Windows 10, Microsoft has eliminated it from Windows.Advertisement
The Xbox Trojan horse
AFP PHOTO/Jeff Christensen
The original Xbox console came about because Microsoft was worried about Sony's PlayStation 2, which was enticing developers away from making games for Windows.Plus, with the inclusion of a DVD player, Sony made no bones about the fact that it saw the PlayStation 2 as its own first step towards making a video game console into a media hub.Advertisement
With the Xbox, built on top of the same DirectX technology that powers Windows games (but without anything we'd recognize as "Windows,"), Microsoft made a credible play to keep its developers happy while providing a roadmap towards trying that whole "computer-in-the-living-room" thing again.It was risky. The video game market is notoriously hard to break into. But it worked, with over 24 million Xbox consoles sold over its lifespan.The Xbox was established as a serious player in the market. And by appealing to gamers, Microsoft finally had a real beachhead in the living room. Advertisement
The follow-up Xbox 360 went a step further: In addition to games, it had a bunch of video apps, including Netflix and Hulu. With the Xbox 360, Microsoft was perpetually walking a fine line between selling it as a video game console and as a multimedia hub. Eventually, Microsoft even came out with Internet Explorer for the Xbox 360, basically revisiting the WebTV concept.
But, again, it worked, in part because the Xbox 360 beat Sony's PS3 to market by a full year. The Xbox 360 was the best-selling system of its generation with 84 million units sold.But it still wasn't the full Windows-on-TV experience that Microsoft had been looking for.Advertisement
Then came the Xbox One...
When Microsoft first announced the console in 2013, it focused mainly on the Xbox One's multimedia capabilities, leaving the video games as an afterthought. A lot of gamers who had supported the Xbox 360 found this alienating.Then, Microsoft announced the Xbox One would require the motion-sensing, movement-tracking Kinect sensor, meaning that the system would cost $500 at retail - $100 more than the Sony PlayStation 4.Advertisement
In exchange for the higher price tag, Microsoft promised that the new system, plus Kinect, would provide an unprecedented user experience, including immersive games and television shows that you could actually interact with. Plus, it shipped with Bing-powered search and the Internet Explorer browser preinstalled.
This was finally going to be Microsoft's perfect living room computer: Games, media, and the Web, all in one box, and attached to the TV.Except for one problem: Gamers hated that idea. The backlash was huge.Advertisement
Six months after it launched, Microsoft nixed the Kinect requirement for the Xbox One, and started selling the console minus the sensor for a more competitive $399. Microsoft's press events and public appearances after that primarily focused on games.
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In addition, the Kinect has basically fallen into irrelevance, with no developer wanting to make games for an accessory that most people didn't have. Microsoft closed the doors on the studios that were making the interactive TV content last year, too.
That isn't stopping Microsoft from trying yet again. This November, Microsoft is finally giving every single one of the estimated 15 million Xbox One consoles its sold a full upgrade to Windows 10 under the hood via a downloadable software update.That means there will be about 14 million Microsoft Windows PCs, optimized for media and gaming but also capable of productivity and web browsing, attached to the television. It's the fulfillment of the plan that Microsoft originally made way back in 1997 with WebTV.Advertisement
The war for the couch
In a weird way, they're going to be a lot alike, especially if the new Apple TV remote is also a game controller, as some have surmised.And they have their own advantages, too. Apple's App Store is the marketplace of choice for many developers, not least because it tends to be a lot more lucrative than stores for other platforms. With an App Store, the Apple TV could get a lot more flexible and useful, filling in the gaps in its library very quickly.Advertisement
Meanwhile, the Microsoft Xbox One has some of the biggest, most lucrative franchises in gaming, plus the Xbox Live online gaming service, plus tight integration with Windows 10 computers. Apple is good for a lot of things, but gaming, outside of the Angry Birds-style free-to-play game, isn't exactly its forte.
If anything really makes a difference here, it would be that Apple TV is explicitly named and marketed as something to help you watch TV. Plus, it has the partnerships with TV networks like HBO and Showtime to back it up.Meanwhile, Microsoft's core gamer demographic for the Xbox One has traditionally reacted very poorly to anything that takes away from its focus on playing games.Advertisement
If Microsoft can't sell the Xbox One as a media device, even with the Windows 10 upgrade, then this long, 17-year hike to getting Windows in the living room will have all been for nothing.And if the Apple TV ends up back in its current position as a footnote in the company's history, even after all of this, it might mean that the idea of a computer for your television was just never very good in the first place.