Apple's lonely dud

March 8, 2012: 5:05 AM ET

Lost amid the fanfare over the new iPad announced yesterday was a rare flop, the sleepy little black box called Apple TV.

By John Patrick Pullen, contributor

apple_tvFORTUNE -- A few days ago, Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson admitted that he purposefully omitted details about Apple's forthcoming television from his exhaustive account of the visionary's life. Yesterday at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the team Jobs tasked with carrying Apple into the future also left those details out. Instead, the company announced a new Apple TV that's every bit as disappointing as previous versions — only now in crackling high-definition.

Initially, some rejoiced at the fact that Apple's (AAPL) living room appliance, as well as the iTunes movie and television store it connects to, are finally embracing 1080p, the highest high-definition standard out there. (Previous iterations were only capable of displaying the inferior 720p.) In reality however, the update only brings Cupertino's little black box up to speed with competing devices. The standard has long been offered by the likes of Roku, Vudu and a dozen other devices. iTunes users will certainly benefit from the set-top box's integration with Apple's iCloud services, but this was a feature so expected that pundits barely bothered to predict it ahead of time.

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What could have been is much more interesting. Apple rumor mongers frothed over anticipated upgrades of a more radical flavor. Top on the list was integration with Siri, the iPhone 4S' intelligent personal assistant, a better remote control, even an FM radio tuner. None of those came to be. Yet Apple can hardly be blamed for falling short of expectations, many of which are impossible to meet. And, to create a more robust device would surely have bloated the box, not to mention the $99 price.

One thing Apple should have done is open the platform widely to outside developers by creating an Apple TV App Store. This is an opportunity that Apple has shunned from the start, making a select few apps like Netflix (NFLX) or Youtube (GOOG) available. True, few have had success with this tact. Google TV embraced the idea but failed with its first pass. Scatterbrained development, underpowered boxes, non-uniform interfaces, and confusing input devices quickly turned the Android-powered peripherals from must-haves to half-offs. And it has taken a year, public announcements of renewed dedication by Google, and a CES lineup jammed full of smart TVs for the platform to stay afloat. That could have been a year in which Apple was busy building a new category of software.

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While it may seem like Cupertino is ignoring Apple TV apps entirely, don't bet on it. The new Apple TV user interface demonstrated at the iPad announcement hints at a better future. Gone are the menu columns in favor of a tiled interface evocative of iOS handheld devices. Of course, to get a square (or channel) of your own, you still have to be an Apple-approved partner — for now. A more open, flourishing TV App Store isn't like to become a reality until the company's bigger television initiative Isaacson hinted at come to fruition.

In the interim, Apple has decided to keep the platform closed to independent developers too (unless they want to stream their Apps via Airplay from an iOS device), stifling innovation and underwhelming the living room yet again. That means no Angry Birds on your big screen, even though Roku lets them fly, or Facebook on your HDTV, unless you're using Microsoft's (MSFT) Xbox Live. For now, the new Apple TV, like its ancestors, is closed for business.

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