NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The earliest computers, like the Apple (AAPL - Get Report) II, were all about empowerment. It was just the user and the computer, and the goal was to do something that couldn't be done before.
That may have meant using a VisiCalc spreadsheet for a small business, developing a rudimentary game or creating a database of music. Even writing a personal checkbook program in BASIC.
Customers loved the idea of a handsome piece of hardware that could provide these wonderful new things. Who wouldn't?
As time went on, the modern computer (then tablet) connected to the Internet, allowing companies to assess how we use our computing devices and analyze our buying habits. Various tech companies today work hard to place hardware in our hands that allows them to analyze our preferences and habits so that we buy more from them. What appears to be a service is cloaked in self-serving agendas to seduce the customer into spending more.
Is this a bad thing? After all, profits are always good.
Amazon.com (AMZN - Get Report) has countless items for sale, not least of which is entertainment. By building the Fire TV, Amazon is able to get better and better at providing that which customers have been agitated into wanting. Industry-watcher David Pierce has explained the Fire TV logic beautifully: "Amazon doesn't have to guess what people want, it just has to wait for others to get it wrong."
In contrast, Apple builds hardware that can be appreciated for its own sake with the added benefit of a delightful user experience that, often, leads to creativity. Apple's Jonathan Ive's goal is to make a product that pleases us and thereby triggers the imagination. The device is the experience, and the experience invites freedom of expression and choice.
Looking at the new Amazon Fire TV (and even the Apple TV), I see a black box. Plain in the extreme. The message here is that the hardware means nothing. What one can use it for to satisfy tastes and interests is paramount. The box, if it could be reduced to a grain of rice, would be just fine.
Unfortunately, when the business goal is get better at convincing the customer into spending more, there is a certain implicit callousness towards the consumer. There is a distinct difference between a beautiful instrument of creation that can be used for entertainment and virtually invisible hardware that caters solely to the frequent, shallow whims of the customer.
With all that in mind, what future options are available to Apple? With Google's (GOOG - Get Report) Chromecast, the Roku systems and the Amazon Fire TV, should Apple be focused on a next-gen black box, indistinguishable from the rest? Is a race to deliver the most salivating content so that Apple can make nickels and dimes on movies and TV shows Apple's ultimate goal?
Apple has always had a reputation for encouraging people to do something creative with their hardware; this attitude is fundamental in its marketing. The goal is to become more of an individual, to refine skills, to think independently. How can these next-generation set-top boxes, supremely tuned to lure the customer into thinking like the crowd, do that? They cannot.
Yet when it comes to next-generation TV hardware, Apple's traditional vision remains elusive. If personal entertainment and spending is the only personal goal, and the hardware means nothing, then one is not really encouraged to do something with that amazing device. Since day one, Apple has done its best to remind us that we should think about being good stewards of our computer tools -- and contributing.For Apple, the fundamental reason why it has declared the Apple TV as a hobby in the past was because there was no clear-cut path to develop hardware in line with its own vision, given the constraints of the TV industry. A black box was all that could be accomplished.
However, Apple has always demanded more from itself than that. And so do we. So the real question is, if Apple is going to make a leap forward, to make a piece of TV hardware that exemplifies Apple's traditional industrial design, what form will it take and how will we use it?
Is the goal merely to help the customer find and pay for video content more easily? Will the goal be to extract the maximum amount of revenue from the customer when, consensus thinks, Apple's real interest lies in hardware profits derived from fulfilling a fundamental human need?
At first, one might be concerned that the flood of set-top boxes will overwhelm Apple's TV efforts into insignificance. But I somehow doubt that Apple's ultimate goal is to merely build another, slightly better little black box.
Apple -- if it is to remain faithful to its corporate vision of empowerment instead of the enslavement its critics (and competitors) imply -- is thinking (I hope) about something more inspiring, more grand than just another tiny box to deliver addictive visual dazzles.
Can it be done? It may be the very toughest challenge in the media and technology sectors. The solution seems to be taking its sweet time. Perhaps we'll soon see.
At the time of publication the author is long AAPL.
This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.