iCloud and The AppleTV Problem

A couple of months ago, we decided to get rid of DirecTV. It was costing us about $100 a month, and we didn’t use it enough. Since Spring was here and Summer around the corner, we figured we’d cancel our service and switch to the AppleTV instead. We knew it would be a compromise, and we’d miss out on a few special showings that we really enjoyed, but we also realized we were bound to save a ton of money. Any way we looked at it, we were going to save a lot, avoid commercials altogether, and have a more flexible arrangement since we could watch shows on a number of devices.

But a problem quickly presented itself. An AppleTV doesn’t have storage per se, but simply streams media. This is great if you are renting something, but there’s a lot of programming that can’t be streamed, generally because most studios are reluctant to allow 99 cent streaming of their shows. And those that do still have the “two year old problem” as we call it – our daughter likes to watch a very small number of shows a lot. She’ll watch a given episode two dozen times before she gets tired of it. And the rental terms, while often reasonable, aren’t great in a situation like that.

Therefore, we end up purchasing certain programs, particularly seasons of shows that our daughter really likes. But of course, those can’t be stored on the AppleTV, so you need a Mac around. You cannot, unfortunately, just store them on a Time Capsule, despite the fact that we have a 1GB Time Capsule here. That’s frustrating, but it’s because the Time Capsule just acts as a dumb hard drive, and there’s no way to move its content around in a smart enough way.

To solve this, I would often leave my laptop out at night. But laptops have very limited storage and you can’t really expect them to stay on very much. I would take it to work every day, so all of the programming we’d purchased would be unavailable at home. In the end, we put a Mac Mini in our living room, but that’s not going to work for most people, because that’s a $699 computer. It’s not very compelling to purchase an AppleTV for $99 when you realize you need to spend a lot more to make it fully functional and useful to you.

So that’s where we are at. We have a device that lets us use the AppleTV the way we want, whenever we want. It’s not cheap but it was fine for us since we kind of wanted a computer in the living room for quick work tasks anyway. And there it sits.

For most people, Apple could solve this problem in a much more elegant way. If the Airport device was smarter, and could take the place of my Mac for a lot cheaper, that would be hugely helpful. Then, the AppleTV (which also runs the same CPU as the iPhone) could be used to purchase shows like I do on my Mac, but they would be stored on my Airport device. This would be brilliant.

When taking a step back, it becomes clear to me that an iCloud service, when coupled with an intelligent device like the Airport and an update to the iTunes software, could be a very powerful combination. It could make all your software purchases and updates faster and more reliable. It could make your media purchases more flexible and more reliable as well, since it could handle backups at the same time (at Apple’s data server).

It might also be able to take the place of the cumbersome “storage and transfer” of data that iPhone apps employ now. When you connect an iOS device to your Mac, you can see that some apps have their own “folder” where they store their data. You can bring files in and out of there, but only when your device is connected. Imagine if your Airport and/or iCloud kept that in sync in the background (only when you’re on wifi already, to save battery) and made it available somewhere like your iDisk. Just like your files, calendar, bookmarks, contacts, and mail, you’d be able to get to the storage for all your favorite iPhone and iPad apps as well, from any other device.

Of course it’s never as simple as it sounds, and I feel like that’s why it’s taken Apple so long to make this happen. They are notorious for taking their time on features to be sure they get them right. I feel that in many cases, they have lately been releasing very simplistic implementations of features they may or may not flush out down the road. Notifications in iOS are a good example of this. They are by far the simplest of any contemporary mobile operating system, but even if Apple overhauled the system, they could keep the API identical for programmers. Just as they could for in-app file storage. To a developer, things might not change one bit. But for users, this could be huge.