Apple TV: Growing from Appliance to Television

You probably know from listening Mac OS Ken, or reading my column on The Mac Observer, that for quite some time I’ve hated the idea of an Apple Television.

Ken Ray: On TV!Apple TV 2 I love. Got it the day it came out for US$99 and I use it every day. I listen to podcasts through it, watch Netflix through it, stream movies stored on my Mac through it, and all without having to buy a new television.

And for basic reasons: the ease of use and the low cost. I love what it is and what it does. And it does not do nearly enough to warrant making a full on television for between $1,000 and $1,500. And so I’ve hated the idea of Apple making a television, since everybody who thinks they’re going to make a television thinks that’s how much it will be.

But everybody thinks they’re going to. So, between that thinking, that there will be a full-on Apple Television by the end of this year, and with the idea that Apple is going to introduce an update to the $99 Apple TV set-top box this week, I’ve started wondering how we get from here to a justifiable Apple Television.

I’m leaving off Siri from this conversation, just so you know, and concentrating more on content since just about everybody agrees Apple has to come with some kind of content deal to make an Apple Television worth it.

Apple TV: The Little iOS Box
Apple TV is an iOS device. Is it time for it to start acting like one? The iPod nano acts more like an iOS device in some ways in its use of applications — built-in, not expandable — but Apple TV is all about passive consumption and minimal interaction.

Want to watch movie trailers or movies or TV shows? Baseball, basketball, hockey? Or listen to the radio, your iTunes tunes, or podcasts?

Want to watch or listen to one of the small number of things built into Apple TV relative to the number of things that are out there to listen to? Apple TV’s your baby.

Now, I don’t think Apple can just charge in and open up the Internet to the television. That’s what Google tried to do with Google TV, and Google TV got shut down. Not literally, but content providers started killing Google TV’s access to streams, right?

Come back, though, to what Apple TV is. Apple TV is an iOS device, which means somewhere in there, there must be the ability to run iOS applications of which there are close to half a million available. Not half-a-billion as some would accidentally try and have you believe, but half-a-million and counting. Including some from ABC, and NBC, and CBS, and PBS, and CNN, and FOX News, and al-Jazeera, and UStream and… and that’s just the start.

Apps, it seems to me, are the solution. Assuming there’s a problem to solve.

When Steve Jobs said he’d cracked the idea of the connected television, apps — to me — are “cracking it.” Do you still have to worry about billing and making deals? Eh… it does get a bit hinky there.

On the one hand, Apple wants its 30-percent. If there’s an App Store on my Apple TV and I can buy HBO through it, then Apple get’s 30-percent of the monthly or yearly subscription. Whichever.

Or if there’s no App Store on Apple TV, but I buy it through the regular App Store and it becomes available after that through my Apple TV, they get 30-percent. But there’s precedent for Apple to not care about that 30-percent, at least as far as TV is concerned. And at least not yet.

There’s an NHL option on my Apple TV, and I cannot pay for it through my Apple TV. I go to pay for it through Apple TV and it sends me — not to the App Store — but to a special website for NHL online, which I have to access through something besides Apple TV. Apple’s getting nothing for that, except perhaps, for more interest in Apple TV.

Maybe someone who doesn’t have or doesn’t want cable but does have high-speed Internet and wants more hockey than humans should watch goes ahead and buys an Apple TV because they can get NHL games without getting cable television.

Same thing with HBO. I’ve gotta say that one bothers me. I am, currently, on the verge of getting a lot more cable TV or a lot less. And it’s because of HBO Go. For people who don’t know what that is, HBO Go is a neat sounding service from HBO that lets people who have it watch current and past HBO TV shows, as well as some movies I think, either on their computer or on a portable device. And that is awesome.

Have you ever watched “Rome?” Have you seen “Deadwood?” Were you a fan of “The Wire?” Did you see “Six Feet Under?” I used to have HBO so I used to watch those when they were on TV. I’m sorry it’s not TV, it’s HBO.

What is that? Of course it’s TV.

That’s a bit from “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which is another great HBO show.

Even in that old ad campaign they said, “It’s not TV… It’s HBO.” But you had to have cable TV. Makes sense for when they were using that ad-campaign since there was no other way to get it into the home at the time. There is now. Technically. Though not from a business standpoint.

What’s cool about HBO Go is access to shows you can no longer see on television whenever you wants and wherever you want. On a computer or on an iPad. And if it’s on an iPad 2, you can AirPlay Mirror it and also have it on your TV.

What’s uncool is you have to have Cable TV and an HBO subscription to get it. So if all you want is HBO Go, you have to have two or three tiers of cable.

So the NHL, NBA, and Major League Baseball get it. I can have those without having anything but a high-speed Internet connection, and they don’t care where I get my high-speed Internet connection. And I also need some sort of compatible device, like a tablet, computer, Roku Box, or an Apple TV. I can have Baseball, Basketball, or Hockey, but I can’t have HBO.

I understand why. Historically, HBO is a cable channel. Historically, they were the cable channel.

I remember the first time I saw HBO I was 9. It was 1979. I was at a family member’s home in the Boston area, and he had HBO. There were movies on TV! With no commercials! “Jaws” and “Deliverance!” I shouldn’t have been watching either of these movies. I was nine. I don’t think I actually watched “Deliverance.” But I remember it being on.

There’s an old hotel — still in business — near downtown Buffalo that has an old, faded, painted sign proclaiming that they have HBO. That was a big draw. Were you gonna stay at a Howard Johnson’s or a Holiday Inn? Which one has HBO?

HBO is a cable channel, and so they kind of have to play nice with the cable companies. At least they think they do. Mostly because they’re not as ballsy as Apple.

Apple could probably dictate all sorts of terms to Best Buy at this point because Apple makes the hottest products out there. If Apple wanted Best Buy to do something they could probably make it happen because people don’t want to go to Best Buy; people want Apple products and they’re willing to go to Best Buy to get them.

I’m not bad mouthing Best Buy. I’m just saying it’s not a shopping destination. People, at one time, liked going to FAO Schwartz because it was FAO Schwartz. People like going to Apple Stores because they’re Apple Stores. People like going to the big Macy’s in New York City because it’s the big Macy’s in New York City.

They’re willing to go to Target and Walmart and Best Buy, but they’re not places to which people flock just because they are what they are, save for the parking lot of a Walmart on a small town Saturday night.

HBO, it seems to me, could swing its co-ax around a bit and tell cable companies, “Hey guess what? We’re gonna sell our service to people without cable subscriptions.” And it doesn’t seem to me that they would suffer that much.

There may be a worry that cable-co’s across the country would kill their HBO deals, but people who have cable associate HBO so closely with cable that the backlash would be worse for the local cable companies than it would be for HBO. People have choices now. If my cable company suddenly yanked HBO I’ve got DiSH, DirecTV, Verizon FioS, or AT&T Uverse. I have choices, and cable companies know that. Plus, if HBO went online, I’ve got online options, too.

Cord-cutters are already cutting the cord. HBO is, apparently, not reason enough for them to stay. Some people, I’d imagine, are getting cable or staying with cable for HBO specifically, but that makes HBO-the-iPad-and-cable-service the Walmart, Target, or Best Buy. Some people want cable, other people are willing to go there to get what they want: Best Buy for iPads, cable for HBO.

When Steve Jobs says he “cracked” the whole connected TV thing, I don’t know if that’s what he was thinking. But I’d be very happy if we found out that, yes, that is what he was thinking.

So that solves one problem. How do you get cable-companies on to Apple TV? Let them sell apps through the app store. With the subscription plan. Where Apple gets 30-percent. Or, do what Amazon has done with the Kindle App, what Barnes and Noble has done with its eReader app, and what baseball, basketball, and hockey have done: let people sign up for those services online, give them access to the associated apps on their iThings and their Apple TVs, and do what you — as Apple — have always done. Make the real money on the hardware.

It’s All in the Apps
So that’s one thing: TV content as Apps. Will we see that this week? I don’t know. Probably not, but I’d love to.

There was a story a few weeks ago that said Apple was scrambling to get select App Developers to have their applications ready for the Retina Display iPad everyone expects to see announced this week, but — assuming there is any validity to that story — what if it wasn’t just retina display for which they were getting their apps ready, but some sort of more encompassing iPad/Apple TV combo? Because apps for watching TV aren’t “it” to me; they’re not the end-all, be-all. They’re a good start down the Apple Television road, but they’re not the end of it.

Thing two: What would it take to make the iPad or iPhone my control surface for another app, or many other apps on an Apple TV?

There’s a proof of concept out there, now, called the Apple TV remote. Your $99 hobby puck Apple TV is on a Wi-Fi network. You log your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch onto that same network, and suddenly your iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch is a remote control for your Apple TV. And it’s good. Let’s you scroll through menus without any lag, and lets you type in passwords and search terms on the virtual keyboard on the handheld device, which is much faster and much more convenient than having to arrow through the menu of letters, numbers, and symbols on the TV screen.

To use the old Steve Jobs line: it just works.

So, could we turn the iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch into a functional D-Pad for games? I know Roku has an Angry Birds channel with the game and the cartoons associated with it, I think. I have no idea how it’s controlled, but I assume they haven’t put out a game controller specifically for it.

Could developers sell an app for Apple TV and give away a control app for that TV app for iOS devices? Or would they? We know they can — technically — because of the remote control app for Apple TV from Apple.

You can also marry one app to another across iOS devices the way iStopMotion does. iStopMotion is a stop-motion animation app for the iPad and iPad 2 from Boinx Software. You can shoot scenes, one frame at a time through your iPad 2. or you can set up your iPhone or iPod touch through a second, free, app they give away called iStopCamera that controls the second device. So you don’t have to worry about touching and moving the camera and possibly screwing up your movie.

The basic point is you can tie together two iOS devices, letting one control the other, and the Apple TV is an iOS device. This again comes back to apps. Not just for watching things, but also for doing things.

Suddenly, woops… they’ve taken away from console gaming. And they’ve taken away from cable. And who knows how much of what else. All with the $99 box you have currently, or probably the updated one everyone’s expecting this week since you’d want better processing power.

And then, once you build up apps for the TV, and once you get people keen on the idea, once you’re selling HBO for iThings and playing all sorts of games that developers haven’t even thought of yet, but on which they could start working in earnest this summer after WWDC along with iOS 6, and with the added strength of the new processors for the iPhone, iPad, iPod touch and Apple TV, then introduce the Apple Television as the “ah-ha” moment, the way the iPad was. The way the iPhone was. The way the iPod was.

But, unless they can keep it out of the $1,000 range, it won’t be the iPod of TVs, or the iPad or iPhone for that matter. Bring it in between $500 and $700, I’d say maybe. I’d say you might actually have people lining up for a TV. In large numbers.

At $1,000 to $1,500 it’ll probably sell — and even sell well. But most people won’t toss off their TVs to spend upwards of $1,500 for a new one, especially if Apple leaves the sub-$100 hobby puck out there as an option.

So that, to me, is at least one way we get from here to Apple Television. It may not be the right way; it may not be the way it happens. It’s certainly not the only way it might.