Apple’s recent overhaul of the Apple TV has pundits scrambling to analyse and dissect the company’s renewed push into the living room. Judging from all the excitement, you might think “Apple + TV” was something unique to the 21st century.
It turns out that Apple (a company perhaps more skilled at tech déjà vu than anyone) flirted with TV/PC convergence some 14 years prior to 2007’s Apple TV, both with prototype set-top boxes and through a bona fide shipping product, the Macintosh TV.
The Macintosh TV, released October 1993 (in the US only), incorporated a 68030-powered Macintosh computer, a cable-ready TV set, and a CD-playing stereo system into one device. The Mac TV could display cable TV stations or an AV video signal on the computer’s 14in colour monitor, play audio CDs through its integrated stereo speakers, and allow users to power on/off the computer and change channels with its bundled remote control.
Such a combination of computer, stereo, and TV out of the box was unheard of at the time. According to Byte magazine, the Macintosh TV was the very first PC to pull off that particular feat of gadget convergence.
Despite Apple’s achievement, the Macintosh TV benefited more from marketing legerdemain than groundbreaking technological ingenuity. The basic functionality offered by the Macintosh TV was hardly new to 1993; one could have pieced together a similar TV-swilling Mac using third party video/tuner cards since at least 1990, albeit at considerable expense.
In building the Macintosh TV, Apple used mostly off-the-shelf components. The company started with the LC 500 series all-in-one computer design and coloured its case, keyboard, and mouse black. Then it added a CD-ROM drive, a custom-designed TV tuner/video input card, and an IR remote control. The result was the first Mac to ship with a black case and the only black desktop Mac released in the United States.
The LC 520 didn’t have a TV tuner card, but it was more affordable than the Macintosh TV and had better specs.
Beyond all other properties, the Macintosh TV’s black case defines the machine in both mystique and collectable desirability today. Had Apple left the case a standard beige, we might not even be talking about it now and the world might more clearly see the Macintosh TV for what it truly was: a crippled Mac with a factory-installed TV tuner card.
Why did it flop?
When you combine two commonly used devices into a single box, there should be some logic behind it. Reduced cost, greater productivity, new functionality, and smaller footprint are a few of the reasons a company might combine, say, a TV set with a computer. Apple apparently had few of these advantages in mind when it designed the Macintosh TV.
Apple’s TV computer sold for a pricey US$2079 (about $3140 in 2010 dollars), and yet the press at the time of its debut called it an “affordable Mac”. A news story in the January 1994 issue of Macworld said that, “For that money, you’re getting neither a state-of-the-art Macintosh nor a slam-bang television.” Yes, Macs were very expensive back then, but the Macintosh TV’s cousin, the tuner-less LC 520, sold for US$200 less and boasted greater upgrade flexibility.
Flexibility was sorely lacking in the Macintosh TV’s design. Although the machine packed a respectable (for the time) 32MHz 68030 processor, 5MB of RAM, and a 160MB hard drive, the fine print put a damper on early enthusiasm over the machine.
For reasons not entirely clear, Apple crippled the Macintosh TV by limiting its data bus speed to 16MHz (the bus on the LC 520 ran at 25MHz) and the maximum RAM supported to 8MB (versus 36MB max on the LC 520). Also, you couldn’t add features to the computer without removing the TV functionality, as the TV card occupied the system’s only internal expansion slot.
Why buy a hobbled $2079 computer to use as a TV set when you could buy a stand-alone 14in TV set for, say, $1800 less? You must get something extra, technologically, out of having both devices in one box, right? For example, you’d think a computer that can digitise and display video on its monitor might be able to capture video to the hard drive. Nope. No such luck with the Macintosh TV – the only capturing it could do was saving screenshots as PICT files.
And you might want to watch TV in a window while you work or take notes on the computer, right? Well, the Macintosh TV didn’t support that either. It was full screen TV or no TV, although the machine let you listen to TV audio in the background while working with the desktop.
In other words, the user gained no significant technical advantage from merging these two devices together. So there must be another reason.
Maybe it was to save space – the best argument for buying a Macintosh TV at the time. Not a bad idea for college students in cramped dorm rooms . But just like today, famously two-minute-noodle-dependent students of 1990s didn’t have deep pockets to blow on a pricey, limited Mac at a time when few dorm rooms even had cable TV connections.
And so, it seems, that Apple aimed the Macintosh TV for a market that didn’t exist. Apple must have known this at heart, because the company only produced one run of 10,000 units, and they refused to distribute them widely or promote them actively. The Macintosh TV sold in only 250 stores nationwide.
After a poor public reception, Apple discontinued the Macintosh TV in February 1994, four months after its introduction.
Apple TV’s cousin?
Given the “TV” part of their names, it’s inevitable that comparisons might be made between the Macintosh TV of 1993 and the Apple TV of 2007 through 2010. However, aside from the fact that both devices are computers that display TV content, the two are almost completely unrelated. The Macintosh TV was designed to play traditional analogue TV content on a computer screen, and the Apple TV was designed for the exact opposite: to play digital content once stuck in computerland on a traditional TV set.
Had the Macintosh TV been a roaring success, perhaps Apple might have plunged head-first into TV convergence sooner, but without widespread internet adoption and home broadband service, the switch to digital distribution of video media wouldn’t have taken place until around this time, anyway. In 1993, Apple brought TV content to the desktop in the only way that made sense at the time: though analogue cable TV.
Despite the failure of the Macintosh TV, Apple didn’t completely get out the TV/Mac convergence business. Shortly after the Macintosh TV’s demise, the company sold standalone AV/TV tuner card kits that could be installed into regular Macs. These kits included a remote control and even supported video capture, although this option arrived during Apple’s all-time commercial low during the mid-1990s and few took advantage of it.
Thanks to the current installed base and might of iTunes, the ball is currently in Apple’s court on the future of digital television. Will Steve Jobs finally lead Apple in a successful invasion of the TV world, or will it remain a passing hobby?
[Benj Edwards is a freelance writer who specialises in computer and video game history. He is also Editor-in-Chief of Vintage Computing and Gaming, a blog devoted to vintage technology.]