Thoughts On Apple’s Latest TV Efforts

Earlier this week, a few reports emerged about Apple’s upcoming plans to disrupt the TV market. The first mentioned that Apple was trying to work with cable providers on finding new ways to distribute TV through its hardware, rather than trying to license content itself. The second report gave a few more details about what that hardware would be capable of. I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past few days, and this is what I think we can expect from any Apple TV efforts being announced over the next few months, possibly even next month at its rumored September 12 event.

New box, same as the old box

The new set-top box hardware that Apple is talking to cable operators about using is none other than an updated version of its Apple TV product. Which is to say: Apple probably isn’t creating new hardware to suit the needs of cable operators, or to try to replicate their existing set-top boxes. Instead, Apple is trying to convince them to build new apps for its existing device.

No doubt, the new Apple TV will have some interesting new features under the hood — likely a faster processor, better graphics capabilities, and the like, but the form factor and underlying hardware will probably remain the same. Also, Apple will likely keep the same $99 price point and just make the product more useful. The WSJ’s report pegged the hardware at sub-$200, but anything over $100 is a tough sell, as Boxee, Logitech, and anyone building streaming boxes (other than Apple and Roku) can attest.

New software, new UI, new apps

Along with maybe a better processor and support for improved video playback, I expect the Apple TV to get a UI refresh, one which will allow users to customize the apps on their home screen, in the same way that they would an iPhone or iPad. It’s also aiming to help content owners appify the way that users discover content, according to the WSJ report: “Another significant feature of the Apple set-top device is likely to be its user interface, which could resemble the navigation icons on Apple’s iPad.”

That will be a welcome improvement over existing electronic program guides, which provide little more than a grid view of whatever is on and upcoming, and are generally a pain in the ass to navigate and impossible to find anything on. But that doesn’t mean that just anyone will be able to create apps for the device.

A curated list of partners

To date, the number of apps available through Apple TV have been fairly limited, and I think they’ll probably remain that way. While it clearly needs to find a better way to search and navigate through them, it’s doubtful that the company will open up its Apple TV SDK to all comers in the same way that it did for the iPhone or iPad. There are a few reasons for this, but the main one seems to be that there are few really good TV apps out there right now.

Just ask Samsung, which spent the last several years trying to build up a robust app ecosystem from third-party developers, only to find that there’s only five or six apps that users genuinely care about. Sources have told me that internally, the consumer electronics manufacturer has been trying to scale back its openness, with reagards to third-party apps. While having a long tail of apps can be a benefit in the mobile world, app discovery and quality control can be a real problem. Apple will likely keep its walled garden closed, in the same way that Microsoft has, when it begins accepting more third-party apps.

Control and navigation on the 2nd screen

Let’s face it: the up-down-left-right-click control of the current generation Apple TV sucks. While there’s the Apple Remote app, which makes the experience slightly better, especially from a search perspective, anyone building an app for the next-gen Apple TV will want a lot more control. In the next version, I expect Apple will tie in more robust second-screen capabilities, rather than introducing a new touch control just for the Apple TV.

And what happens if you’re not one of Apple’s chosen partners, asked to participate in building apps for the Apple TV? Well then, you can just go around that restriction and build apps that use the iPad or iPhone for search and navigation but leverage Apple’s AirPlay technology for video display on the TV. We’re already starting to see some of these dual-screen apps emerge, like the recently released ShowYou iPad app.

Regardless of whether or not they actually build Apple TV apps, I’d love to see more apps like HBO GO or Comcast’s Xfinity app take advantage of this magical technology to fling videos they’re watching to the Apple TV, and use the iPad for interactive features or navigation.

Don’t expect too much disruption

The general response to this latest round of news around its TV efforts is that Apple has adopted a sort of, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” philosophy toward the industry. And that’s mostly true. But it’s also reportedly pushing technology which could still be considered a little too disruptive. Take, for instance, its network DVR idea, which would let users start a show from the beginning, even if they turned up late. It’s a great idea, but frankly, it’s also one that is tied up in all sorts of rights issues and unlikely to be adopted right away by distributors.

As for the display aspect — the whole channels- or shows-as-apps idea that it appears to be pursuing — there are plenty of companies that are already doing this on their own. Comcast’s new X1 set-top box and cloud-based user interface emphasize individual programs and recommendations over the legacy grid interface, at least at the home screen. And others are learning that, in a world of Netflix and Hulu, which emphasize content over programming time, that’s the way consumers are learning to discover content.

One other thought about this whole “too much disruption” thing. I don’t think anyone — not Apple, not the cable companies, not the content owners — see this new hardware as a set-top box replacement. You’ll still have at least one big, ugly, shitty box sitting in your living room. But the Apple TV will work great as a complement to that, or as a way to extend content into rooms where leasing an HD DVR set-top box made no sense. Like in a child’s bedroom, for instance. Even so, that could help cablecos and consumers alike reduce their reliance on crappy set-top boxes throughout the home.

Still no actual “Apple TV”

And finally, the big underlying theme here is that the actual TV that Apple has been rumored to be building for damn near forever, will remain unbuilt, at least for now. And why not? Apple is selling more Apple TV units than ever, and pretty soon it could be partnering with cable TV operators to get their content on the device. But it’s far from fully baked. Before Apple gets serious about building a high-profile device like a TV set, it’s probably going to want to get the kinks out first.