Apple TV needs full iTunes Store access, not just buy buttons

Much has been made of the fact that Apple TV – at least thus far – only streams or synchronizes media content when used with an iTunes-equipped Mac or PC. Surely this was at least originally by design, and it doesn’t take much imagination to think of what Apple’s worst critics would have said if Apple TV was loaded up with “Buy Now” buttons and direct links to iTunes Store content. “Apple TV’s just another way for Apple to sell its fans more iTunes Store content,” we’d have heard from all quarters, “and they’re paying $299 for this thing? That’s either crazy or just plain stupid.” Others would have speculated that Apple TV was about to cannibalize Mac mini sales. For whatever reason, Apple held back, and consequently, those criticisms barely if even emerged. Apple TV’s introduction might not have set the world on fire, but it didn’t really put anyone off, either.

However, the more time I’ve spent with Apple TV, the more I’ve come to a conclusion that was probably very much intended by Apple: this device does a really good job of previewing stuff Apple wants to sell you. Thanks to its very limited and not especially popular video formats, it’s most likely that you don’t have a lot of specifically Apple TV-formatted content. And perhaps even if you have some, you’re going to wind up wandering over to Apple TV’s top music videos, top TV shows, top movies, and top songs sections of Apple TV eventually.

Each section is going to leave you with generally the same impression. If you have enough money and drive to actually buy an Apple TV today, you’re probably going to discover that you don’t like most of the music in the top music and music video sections. You might be vaguely interested in only one or two of the limited catalog of movies in the current iTunes video store. If you’re already a fan of a given show, you’ll probably also not care particularly to see that two very recent episodes of the TV shows 24 or Battlestar Galactica are in the store’s top 10.

But you will most likely realize something while you’re browsing through this content. Apple TV gives you 30-second video/audio clips, which on most TVs will look and sound good enough to inspire you to consider an impulse purchase. This is the reason some have called for Apple to just add “Buy Now” buttons to the Top 10 sections of Apple TV: when you see a good clip, you don’t want to get out of bed or your sofa to buy it, right?

My personal feeling is that this – a small extension of Apple TV’s current functionality – wouldn’t be quite an Apple-caliber smart idea. Every time a top ten shows or songs list updates, you’d lose the ability to buy some items and gain the ability to buy others. That would be like walking into a mini iTunes store that sells only 10 albums, but you never know what they are until you look at the list, and that list might change an hour later. Selling in this way is almost useless, and not very Apple.

What Apple needs is an Apple TV-browsable, full version of the iTunes Store. Yes, it might need an interface optimized for TVs (even 480P sets) rather than computer monitors. And it’s going to require some sort of reverse-sync mechanism so that you can download to your Apple TV, then send to an iTunes computer, rather than needing the computer to be turned on. But it’s going to make as much sense – arguably more – than the current iTunes video store. If Apple can get to the stage where a video starts playing 2 minutes after starting a download to Apple TV, finishes downloading in the background while you’re watching, then gets transferred onto your computer for archival storage, it will have everything in place for a great video-on-demand service.

Admittedly, adding the Store to Apple TV will get some people really worked up, especially if Apple fails to empower users to more easily create and record their own Apple TV content than is possible today. Accusations of big Apple conspiracies to lock people into Apple-vended content rather than ripped and converted content will grow and get even worse than they are today. But the iTunes Store will be buoyed by its customers to do even better than before, especially in the video department. Suddenly, music videos people weren’t buying for their iPods will become impulse buys because they look good on TVs, too, and people will be buying more music tracks from backcatalogs they searched through their TVs. TV shows will follow in popularity, and hopefully, movies will too.

None of this will happen if we’re only skimming top ten lists on the Apple TV; without a larger browsable catalog, they’re basically dead-ends, and unlikely to make you go over to your computer to make a purchase. My guess is that Apple knows this, and is already working on the software update to make a full iTunes Store happen on Apple TV. Readers, what do you think? Or, because Apple TV doesn’t play your existing video content or costs too much, don’t you care?