Switched On: Apple TV gets its second audition

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Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment.

Apple TV was overwhelmed by the introduction of the iPhone at the Macworld 2007 keynote, but the little set-top device has been the recipient of a complete makeover in 2008. The rich visual menus of the first release are now revealed only after traversing a textual navigation grid that looks austere for an Apple product and downright grim for a TV-based user interface. “Take Two” as it is being called, upgrades Apple TV’s software and positioning, but the product will still struggle to break out of its niche in the mad rush to free movies from their disc detainment.

The first iteration of the Apple appliance was, like many products before it, focused on sending content from the PC to the television. Apple included a fast 802.11n receiver and even a hard drive for ensuring content availability when the network was offline, and the product’s media serving was tied to its popular iTunes software. But ultimately, Apple learned that the music and photos that populate consumers’ hard disks have a hard time competing for attention with premium Hollywood television. This curse of familiarity is especially insidious when it comes to video that demands constant replenishment.

As Steve Jobs noted during his Macworld keynote, Apple now “gets” that video is what consumers want on their TVs. And Apple TV should deliver. In fact, the movie rental and purchase proposition is now very similar to that of the device and service offered by Vudu, Inc., which has a head start on content but a higher price and nowhere near Apple’s brand or distribution power. Apple is also offering podcasts, YouTube and its original ability to access personal content from PCs.

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