New Apple TV: Living Room as Tech Battleground

Today’s unveiling of a smaller, cheaper Apple TV set-top box is the latest in a long line of tech industry efforts to conquer the living room. Recent reports and rumors have Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Sony all developing low-cost entertainment devices that would stream entertainment bits–movies, TV shows, music, photos, and so on–from the Internet to your HDTV.

These endeavors date back to the Internet’s formative years in the 90s, when numerous hardware, software, and online companies gave the Net-TV fusion a shot, but no one got it right.

America Online, back then the 800-pound ogre of online, tried an interactive TV service called teamed up with MTV to deliver digital TV content to big-screen PCs, which were destined for the living room (well, perhaps not). And Gateway 2000 launched an system, as did Compaq Computer and Thomson Electronics.

Many early efforts failed in part because the technologies needed to make them work–speedy and affordable broadband service, in-home Wi-Fi, and faster processors capable of handling HD video streams–weren’t ready for prime time.

They are now, of course. Online video services like Netflix are seeing a surge in subscribers, while Blockbuster and similar DVD-rental chains are marching toward bankruptcy. The easy availability of low-cost media-streaming hardware, including DVRs, set-top boxes (e.g., Boxee gear), and various Blu-ray players and game consoles, has helped as well.

Of course, not all recent efforts have succeeded, either. The original Apple TV, which debuted in 2007, long endured a tepid reception from critics and end users alike. Even Apple seemed to ignore it. The aggressive $99 price of the new model, however, will certainly help Cupertino’s chances in the set-top market.

The coming months will bring a flood of Apple TV competitors, most notably streaming service that would challenge Netflix.

Microsoft is rumored to be developing a TV channel for its Xbox 360 console.

Contact Jeff Bertolucci via Twitter