Apple: Making (common) sense of the future of Apple TV

With all the rumours that have circulated for months, it’s about time to look a bit more logically at what Apple might need to do to make Apple TV a success.

Let’s look at what Apple has given us so far. First we started with the first generation Apple TV that contained its own hard drive, required for storing media for viewing. It was okay, but expensive – and big.

Then, as we got more used to the cloud (or should we say, the cloud became more viable as a way of delivering content), Apple was able to reduce the size of the second generation unit to virtually nothing, having turned it into a glorified media streamer that could pull content from other Apple devices on the same network, or over the net.

With Wi-Fi and 720p HD out (and more recently, 1080p), it’s been a pretty big success despite being built on a totally closed operating system that has very few apps of interest – especially to UK users. One big reason for the success is the £100 price, making it something many people can afford to take a punt on, even if rarely using it after a few weeks.

Yes, it gives you Netflix and YouTube, but for the content that isn’t included on Netflix (and that’s quite a bit, especially new TV series’ and movies), or kills a few minutes here and there on YouTube, you had better be okay with giving your money to Apple to buy music and film via iTunes. Worse than that is the fact that Apple doesn’t attempt to be very competitive when it comes to pricing up content.

They’re going to make a TV… really!

So, throughout the latter half of 2011 and into 2012, there have been plenty of rumours that Apple is going to take things to the next level; making its own televisions and wiping out the competition. So far all of these rumours have come to nothing, despite being told that deals have been made with American cable TV operators and that the TV panels are already in production.

At the same time as the rumours continue to circulate, earlier this year (at Apple’s developer conference) it was suggested that there was actually no need to make anything else because an existing Apple TV box can do everything Apple has in mind. We were told that Apple’s vision is to use its AirPlay Mirroring technology to make the Apple TV box merely act as a bridge between your iPhone, iPad, iPod touch or Mac and the big-screen you already own.

It’s a theory that makes sense, especially if you’ve had a chance to use the technology (such as with an iPad or a Mac with Mountain Lion OS installed). However, it isn’t absolutely perfect and there’s a noticeable lag even if you’ve got a pretty decent home network already. Any potential to disappoint the user is unlikely to make AirPlay the only way Apple is going to try and convince everyone to buy an Apple TV.

If you’re not fortunate enough to have a decent router and the right cabling (or an interference-free Wi-Fi signal) then the experience might be much worse than I’ve experienced with my own MacBook Air sharing its (relatively low-resolution) display with a TV in the same room, on a 5GHz Wi-Fi network that has no other networks nearby.

To take over the TV world it needs to be an out-of-the-box experience that just works, and works just as we expect any Apple product to work. It also needs to work without other Apple equipment having to be owned to get the most from it (at least to begin with).

Back to the beginning

Apple probably needs to go back to the drawing board and look at when the first model had its own internal storage. If an Apple TV is to end up in every living room, bedroom, kids room and the spare room, it must replicate the functionality of a regular set top box (i.e. being able to record programmes delivered by the ‘old-school’ transmission methods; satellite, terrestrial or cable) as well as offering the clever stuff like streaming media from one box to another, over the cloud, from your tablet, iMac or – dare I say it – Android smartphone or Windows laptop.

If it is to include storage, does Apple go with a traditional hard drive, expensive SSD memory or produce various configurations (e.g. 1TB, 2TB models)?

Apple will need deals to be struck with major broadcasters in various countries, not something even Apple is likely to find easy, and – yes – it will probably need to run apps independently of another device sharing its screen. Clearly that means adding a full implementation of iOS6 and getting app developers to work on modifying apps to work without a touchscreen, just as Google is having to do with its Android-based Google TV OS.

It’s my TV

Ideally any game purchased on your Apple TV will be able to run on your iPhone or iPad, and when you come home and exit your game on level 50, you’ll pick up where you left off on the TV. Like your computer, you should be able to log in to your own account on the TV so it’s your data you see on Facebook, Twitter or Angry Birds.

For some reason, it seems acceptable that while a TV may sit in the living room of the family home, it’s normal to have just one person having control of all the apps – or having to constantly log out and back in for every different user (and the obvious privacy issues that this introduces). As nobody else has yet ‘fixed’ this issue, it’s the perfect time for Apple to step up to the plate and sort things once and for all.

Another necessity is making Apple TV look less like a normal set top box, with its separate remote control and hooking up to control your existing Sky box, TiVo, Blu-ray player or console. Ideally it must let secondary devices connect via the Apple TV box, and allow control of them from a nice, trademark Apple, user interface. But how many inputs can this new box (or a TV on its own) include before costs rocket?

Should any video get to simply loop through as it does on Sony’s Google TV box, it mustn’t be as dumb as the Google way. Automatic Content recognition should be used to tell Apple TV what it is you’ve got on the screen – and then to deliver services or content of relevance to it – either on the screen itself, or to other devices in the vicinity, like your iPad; the ‘Second Screen’ experience done more intelligently.

But what about the televisions?!

Okay, so let’s assume Apple does make its own range of televisions. This could happen, and the high profit margins might well get the retailers all excited and keen for it to happen too. But, it’s not easy to picture Apple stores (big as they are) taking up loads of room to set up loads of different sized television sets.

Although Steve Jobs might have once proclaimed that 3.5-inches was the optimum screen size for the iPhone (given most people hold a phone the same way, there might have been some truth in it), when it comes to a TV it’s fair to say that opinion on the best size will vary for a huge number of reasons.

You have normal sized living rooms, the garage converted into a home cinema room, small Japanese apartments with people sitting inches away, and then you have the bedrooms, kitchens, office receptions and premier hotel rooms that will be keen to add Apple TV to its list of premium features for guests.

Does Apple pick a few sizes and convince us all that these are all we need, or stick to a one-size-fits-all approach? Either option is far from ideal, but does Apple want to start its takeover of the TV market with a range that includes everything from the 20-inch set for a bedroom to the 75+ inches needed to satisfy the needs of the well off early adopters?

What about 3D? Does Apple embrace this questionable feature, and what type does it go for? Passive or active, or is it ready to take the plunge with a glasses-free system?

Thinking outside of the (set top) box

Could there be an alternative? What about partnering with existing TV makers to embed Apple TV inside TVs from the likes of Sony, LG and Samsun.. oh, okay – scratch that idea. And to think that Apple could negotiate with the likes of Sky is also pushing the boundaries of imagination.

Yet, if deals can’t be made with the broadcasters, Apple TV is right back to where it started and may as well just release a new Apple TV box that can run apps and give access to other streaming services. A far less sexy solution, but rather more likely.

Perhaps that’s why we still haven’t seen a television made by Apple and might not for some time. Or if we do, it might not be as capable of revolutionising TV in the way we imagine, or Apple hoped.

  • What do you think about Apple’s serious entry into the TV market? Share your comments below.
About author
Involved in tech since 1990, from selling mobile phones and computers, to writing about them for trade and consumer publications, such as Mobile News, What Mobile, Know Your Mobile and Stuff. If writing about mobiles wasn't exciting enough, being paid to watch TV during work hours is the icing on the cake. Jonathan on Google+

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