AppleTV missing from WWDC; Are its days numbered, or will there be a glorious future?

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Shortly after the launch of the original iPhone a year ago, Steve Jobs held a private conference in Cupertino for the employees of Apple where they learned that anyone working at Apple for more than a year would get a free iPhone. Good for them. He also outlined the approach Apple was taking towards the future, saying that the iPhone makes the fourth leg of a four-legged stool, the other legs being the iPod, Macs, and Apple TV.

At the WWDC keynote on Monday, where Jobs introduced the iPhone 3G, he said something similar, but the stool he spoke of only had three legs: Music (iPod+iTunes), iPhone, and Macs. But where’s Apple TV?

The set-top video box loved by thousands of users wasn’t even mentioned in passing during the keynote. That’s not that surprising considering that developers don’t have access to the box, but the omission from the “stool” analogy is troubling to those of us who use the device. Is Apple dropping the underachieving product, or is it a sleeping giant that could change your living room?

We’d like to see it opened like the iPhone, with its own app store. Not that we’d want it as a computer — though some do — but it’d be great to be able to get a Google Maps or Weather widget for the box. Then as a screen saver for your TV you could get relevant information.

We don’t have that, and there are no rumors of it being in the pipeline. In fact, for the first time since the Apple TV was announced, there really aren’t any rumors about it at all.

But don’t count the box out yet. Because the Apple TV runs OSX, like the iPhone, most apps and games developed for the iPhone will run with little tweaking on the Apple TV. That means it’s entirely possible that we’ll at some point see things for the apps store ported to the device.

Or we might not. Even with the lowered price tag and “Take 2″ software that came out a few months ago the Apple TV is not a stellar seller for Apple. It’s not that the device doesn’t work — indeed, it’s one of my favorite pieces of gear I own, and that’s saying something — it’s that people aren’t really ready for it.

Cable companies have been offering pay-per-view on-demand content for years but the majority of people just don’t use it. There’s a mental hurdle to be overcome and Apple’s just not trying very hard to get over it.

Really, when’s the last time you saw an Apple TV commercial on TV?

But I’m guessing that’s going to change. Come the holiday season, when many games are out for the new iPhone and the fever reaches a peak, why wouldn’t Apple say, “Oh, yah, you can play these games on your home TV now.”

Apple’s already targeting the Nintendo DS with the iPhone and iPod Touch as a gaming platform. Adding the Wii to its sites while staying in the same platform would be a big step, and a welcome one as well. The motion-sensitive game play is great. If you haven’t tried it out yet, find a way. It adds another dimension to the gaming experience you can’t describe.

It wouldn’t be a stretch for Apple to add a wireless controller to the Apple TV that mimicked the iPhone/iPod Touch as a controller, giving the same great way to play to people who can’t go with the iPhone or won’t go to the iPod Touch.

That innovation, coupled with the iTunes music store and the integrated support for all the media on all the computers on the home network would make the Apple TV into the digital hub that Apple wants it to be.

Of course this is speculation. We don’t know what Apple has in store for Apple TV. It’s entirely possible that Jobs has nothing up his sleeves for the device, which would be too bad. But that’s not likely. Jobs has said before that the Apple TV is one of the most exciting devices he’s ever worked on at Apple, and each update it receives gives it more welcome features, like native YouTube support and streaming podcast downloads.

So maybe the Apple TV will turn into an iPhone-like gaming platform. Or maybe Apple will just start promoting it. Or maybe Jobs and company have something planned that we can’t even begin to guess. But one thing’s for sure: Keep an eye on the Apple TV, it will probably surprise you later this year.

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