Thoughts On the Future of Apple TV

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the mythical “Apple Television.” I gave up my cable television subscription nearly two years ago and haven’t looked back. While I still watch plenty of content on my television, most of it now comes through free over-the-air broadcasts supplemented with online offerings.

Today my media cabinet is filled with devices. I have a TiVo to record and time-shift my over-the-air recordings, an Apple TV to stream from iOS devices, view content from iTunes and third party services like Hulu Plus, Vimeo, YouTube and Netflix, a Blu-ray player to watch the few DVDs I still have and access my Amazon Prime video and a Mac mini connected via HDMI to my TV to access content from websites and other online sources.

As a geek, I’m very pleased with my setup and the variety of choices it offers me to watch just about any content I want when I want while saving over $100 a month off a traditional cable subscription. But I recognize I have a complicated setup that requires a variety of remote controls, keyboards and trackpads and would make any non-techie roll their eyes.

While many people are fed up with the current state of subscription television offerings, most would find the technological barrier to creating solutions like mine too high. This is why so many people stay with their cable and satellite TV services, they’re easy. Call a tech, they install a service, give you a box and a remote and you’re done. Current offerings aren’t elegant, they’re expensive and they aren’t tailored to the individual’s needs or wants. But it's the way it's been for so long many people don't know better. Consumers have been searching for a better way and they’re looking for someone who can give them a simple, elegant all-in-one solution. They’re looking to Apple.

Apple is a natural fit to solve the “television problem.” Apple convinced the music industry to revolutionize the way it sold music with the iTunes Store and we know they can create beloved hardware with elegant and easy-to-use interfaces. While Apple has tried to work with the movie and television studios on content deals for iTunes those have traditionally been on less favorable terms. Video has always been a different, maybe because the television and movie executives feel the music industry gave Apple too much. But many feel if any company could put together a solution, it's Apple.

The Apple TV has been a hobby for many years. This is clearly an area Apple wants to revolutionize but they aren’t willing to commit all their resources until they have content deals in place. Apple knows if they launch their product too soon it will flop and never recover. Keeping the Apple TV in it’s current form as an inexpensive hobby gives them a sandbox to play in while (somewhat) managing expectations.

We’re starting to get a peak at what the future Apple TV may look like. Apple TV just got another update to add features like HBO Go, Watch ESPN and more. While (unfortunately) some of these new features require authentication and proof of a cable subscription, some networks are doing things differently. The CW television network has already reported they’ll soon have an App on the Apple TV that will offer ad supported versions of their programing. A first. (I can’t help but wonder whether that was prematurely announced - notice the CW hasn’t said a word about it since.) I suspect we’ll soon see networks like ABC, NBC and hopefully CBS follow as they already have similar apps available for iOS.

Apple obviously already has a developer kit for Apple TV, they’ve just only made it available to select partners. Creating an Apple TV App Store seems to be a logical evolution where consumers can buy a la carte networks or channels that are ad supported with optional in-app purchases or connect to iTunes to purchase episodes from the back catalog.

One of the things I miss the most since I’ve given up my cable television subscription was access to cable news. While the CNN App for iOS is okay, access to live programing requires authentication with your cable provider which I can't provide. I’d love the option for an In-App purchase to give me the option to add live TV for a monthly fee. One more step towards true a la carte television.

While I think the current version of the Apple TV is just a start, I suspect it’s not that far off from Apple’s future plans for the platform. I don’t think we’ll see Apple produce an integrated television and set-top box. Hopefully Apple realizes the market simply won’t support a true “television” when consumers already have perfectly capable high definition TVs sitting in their living rooms. Apple wants a product that can be more consumable, more expensive than their current $99 offering yet something a typical consumer would expect to upgrade and replace every few years.

In addition to expanding the software offerings, I’d like to see the Apple TV include a tuner to support cable or over-the-air broadcasts and DVR functionality which would require a large hard drive, likely a fusion drive. Maybe you could even convince Apple to include a Blu-ray player, but I doubt that. The box could include AirPlay support to stream shows to Macs, iOS or the current generation Apple TV that people could buy to put in secondary room. Apple already had all the pieces, they just need to put them together. The question remains, can Apple make the long-term content deals it needs? That’s been the hangup all along.