Consumers for years have had to wrestle with a bewildering array of set-top boxes, cords and television ports to get all of the online shows that they want to watch on the biggest screens in their homes. No single TV device, for instance, easily plays content from Amazon Online Video and iTunes -- the video offerings from Amazon and Apple which happen to be vying with each other for dominance in the living room.
That's been inconvenient for folks who subscribe to Amazon Prime and own an Apple device -- a population that is likely in the tens of millions. If you've bought a video through either company, you generally have had to switch between two television set-top boxes to watch those shows in a reliable way on the big screen in the living room. And we only have so many HDMI ports on our TVs after all -- it hasn't been fun to have to crawl behind the screen just because the show you want to watch isn't available through whatever you have plugged into a port at the moment.
But the new Apple TV, which launched this week, offers a tantalizing breakthrough: It has the potential to be the only set-top box you will need.
The hockey puck-sized box offers some cool new features that can be used now -- you can search for shows through the voice assistant Siri and a new remote lets you navigate by touch and play games. But more importantly, it reveals the company's vision for the future of television -- Apple hopes TV watching won't be shaped by static channel guides of hundreds of shows that can be viewed only in certain time slots, but apps, largely developed by third-party companies, that offer your favorite shows on command, anytime you want. Anyone can submit an app, from big companies such as CBS or Netflix to smaller players such as Snapchat or Airbnb.
Apple TV's watch-by-apps approach has another benefit -- it can be the device that finally pulls together all of those subscriptions, watchlists and movies you've randomly downloaded all across the Web.
But the ecosystem will work best only if Apple's fierce competitors decide to join in. Apple is one of the few device makers that can, in fact, command enough respect and customers to make video services such as Netflix and Hulu as well as hardware and content competitors such as Google (by way of YouTube, at least) play ball.
The sticking point, however, is Amazon. The retail titan has bet heavily on video, and even won Emmys for it, and doesn't seem on board with letting Apple TV be the one to rule them all. In fact, it's already played some hardball in this area -- the retailer has said it won't sell either the Apple TV or Google's Chromecast, because neither device has official support for its video offerings. Instead it wants shoppers of its online store to opt for Amazon's own Fire TV box.
Both Apple and Google have pretty clear policies stating that any developer who submits an app that passes store standards can be made available for their devices. Netflix, Hulu and YouTube were part of the Apple TV launch lineup. Amazon Prime Video is a glaring exception — and a letdown for anyone who's an Apple fan and an Amazon Prime subscriber.
It's not clear whether Amazon has any plans to submit an app. Amazon spokeswoman said she doesn't have "anything to share" about a potential Apple TV app or past partnership attempts. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey Bezos is the owner of The Washington Post.)
In the past, Amazon has been willing to leap into walled gardens, for the sake of the convenience of its customers. Its Kindle app, for example, is on practically every device on the market today. But it certainly makes some business sense to keep exclusive Amazon content on Amazon devices such as the Fire TV.
It should be noted that Apple has never created an app that can play content purchased in its iTunes store on devices that are created by other companies. But truth be told, iTunes’ selling point has never really been about exclusive content but rather convenience for customers who own its phones, tablets and other devices.
Ultimately, if the two companies do not get along, there will be a lot of customers who will be forced to split their libraries or pick one content hub over the other. As entertainment becomes a bigger part of all of these companies’ businesses, it’s possible that consumers will just have to keep dealing with the consequences of corporate clashes in their own living rooms.
It's almost enough to make you nostalgic for the old days of cable.