Apple’s TV set top device, the Apple TV, marks its third year of shipments this month, and that makes us reflective on the lifespan of this Apple experiment that appears to be a failure at first glance.  Just about everything Apple touches turns to gold, so why is the Apple TV something akin to the family member never talked about at the family reunion?

First announced on Sept. 12th, 2006, at which time it was code named “i tv”, the first Apple TV units began shipping on March 21st, 2007.  While it seemed exciting at first, its drawback quickly became apparent as soon as the final specifications hit the Apple Store.

apple tv with remoteOnce the final details of the Apple TV were known, you really had to wonder why it wasn’t just called “iTunes in a physical box you attach to your TV” because that was really all it was.  You could stream iTunes purchased movies from your computer, music and that was about it.  Once the Take 2 update came out you could rent from the iTunes store directly from the Apple TV, and you could access Flickr photos and YouTube videos, but that was still about the extent of the device.  At its heart it was still just an iTunes transit system to get content from your computer and the iTunes Store on to your television set.

During an earnings call in Oct. 2008, Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple, said that he viewed the Apple TV as a “hobby”, and that he felt no one had really succeeded as of yet with a set top media streaming device.  These sentiments were echoed by Apple Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook as late as Feb. this year when he again referred to Apple TV as “a hobby.”

The question is, when does Apple start viewing this as more than just a hobby and as a real product?

The quickest route to wider acceptance of the device was if it did more.  Why not work in Hulu support?  Sure it might take a way a bit of the iTunes rental business, but considering the number of more Apple TV units it would help move, wouldn’t it be worth it?  For that matter, where is the Netflix Watch Instantly support?  How about support for AVI video files?  What about possible basing this more on the iPhone operating system and allow people to install applications?

I of course have no delusions about Apple adding support for things it does not have more control over such as Hulu.  There is no doubt that Apple likes to keep a tight grip on the content that appears on its products, but if they ever want the Apple TV to be any sort of financial success, they are going to have to do something with it that makes it seem like, “Oh, I bought a device from Apple that allows me to … spend more money with Apple.”  For now, that is essentially what this is due to its tight integrations with the iTunes Store.

Maybe some day Apple will free the Apple TV to do other things, but for now I’m not exactly holding my breath, and somehow I doubt you should ever expect this to be more than “a hobby.”