Apple TV is ripe for an update – and the market is ripe for innovation
Apple tends not to be a company that is first to market with a particular product, waiting instead until it feels it has the right device for a particular job.
The Apple TV bucked that trend.
First released in 2007, the petite media streamer was initially described by then CEO Steve Jobs as a ‘hobby’ – suggesting a level of experimentation that Apple normally does behind closed doors.
In more recent years, Tim Cook has let it be known that the hobby tag no longer applies, and the device was given a major overhaul that saw its price-point drop in the process. And while sales have allegedly been strong – especially in the context of minimal promotion by Apple – the TV product remains woefully under-utilised.
In terms of hardware, the Apple TV bears a lot of resembelance to an iPad (an iPad 2 or Mini, at least) – bar the likes of the touchscreen, of course. However what it can do is extremely limited, acting as little more than an accessory to other Apple devices a user might own (and perhaps a handy conduit for Netflix).
Since becoming CEO, Cook has repeatedly mentioned television as an area of interest, pointing out that the sector has remained largely static for a number of decades. There have also been persistent rumours of the company trying to strike content deals with US TV firms, perhaps to position itself as alternative to cable TV providers. Some have even suggested that Apple was preparing to enter the television market proper, launching a large HD screen with multimedia and streaming features built-in.
Despite all of this, Apple TV has remained largely the same for four years now. But the time may be right for that to change.
With the launch of its HomeKit for developers, which aims to make it easier for Apple products to link up with connected devices in the home, the company made it clear that it wants to be a part of people’s lives – and not just how they connect with the outside world. The television screen is a natural place for that relationship to begin.
And for all the talk of Apple taking advantage of this potential through a new product, all the pieces it needs to do so already exist.
Apple TV already runs on iOS – albeit a limited version of it – and, as already mentioned, has a manageable amount of processor power under the hood. A relatively small update (and a new SDK) could allow developers to make all manner of apps for the device that millions already own; turning it into a true media hub, communication tool and/or games console.
Leveraging HomeKit, as well as AirPlay, Handover, Continuity and iCloud Drive, Apple TV could easily become the place for people looking to manage and interact with all of their the devices they have dotted around their homes.
But when Apple does decide to unleash the power of its TV product, it is likely to do so with a new piece of hardware too.
Perhaps that will just be a refreshed version of what already exists – something with a newer processor and perhaps a little bit of added storage for all those apps.
They may also opt to completely reinvent the line, maybe to make it work better alongside the other boxes people have connected to their TV (a la the Xbox One’s HDMI pass-through feature) or to have it operate better independent of other Apple products.
Could that see them launch an actual TV? Perhaps. Apple is already familiar with the production of high quality displays – albeit on a smaller footprint than people would want for their homes.
But Apple isn’t in the business of making products at a loss, which is something that most of the big TV manufacturers have been living with for some time. And while the brand might help somewhat, it is hard to see people spending a premium on a commodity like a television just because of the software that’s on it.
Another possibility is that Apple TV partners with existing TV makers to have build its features into their hardware – similar to how Apple’s CarPlay is now being used as the media platform of choice by some car makers.
The problem with this plan is that the company would be extremely limited in its choice of potential partners – TV leaders Samsung, Sony and LG are all smartphone makers to boot, and more specifically are ones tied to Google’s Android OS.
And such partnerships are not always the best way to get your vision to market – as Apple itself knows too well. After all, who remembers the Motorola ROKR – Apple’s first attempt at merging the worlds of the phone and the iPod.
The safest bet is to imagine a next generation Apple TV as being a souped up version of what’s already there – one that’s supported by inventive developers and perhaps a few content makers. Keeping it (relatively) cheap will prove crucial too, and some strong support from the Apple media machine will also do no harm.
While some new iPads – and perhaps Macs – are to be expected next week, some hope that Tim Cook’s ‘…and finally’ might herald a new dawn for the Apple TV. Even if it doesn’t, the company will want to move quickly to exploit the opportunity that Cook himself has highlighted, as rivals like Google and Roku show that this area is far from a one horse race.