Apple’s iPad 3 Event May Also Drive Apple TV Future

The Apple TV hobby might benefit in unexpected ways from the iPad as well as new TV technologies. In fact, the rumored next generation Apple TV may not be a set-top box at all, but rather something mind-blowing. Together, they could upset the balance of power in the TV industry.

I like to speculate. I pleases me to ponder what Apple might be up to, and while I could just wait until March 7th, I have seen some news items that are starting to form an interesting picture of what the future might hold for the TV industry.

First, I saw this article at “No More Cable TV Set-Tops By 2015.” The cable and satellite industry is tired of designing, paying for, warehousing, and servicing clunky set-top boxes. When you think about the consumer hassle and how ugly they are, it makes sense.

Set top box

Classic set-top box, soon to be a relic (Credit: Shutterstock)

Think about how, in TV ads, we never see a maze of wires and boxes next to or under the HDTV. The market cries out for simplicity, and the Holy Grail for the industry is just a TV and speakers. Few wires.

Couple watchng TVThe Holy Grail: No wires

The article above mentions a USB dongle, but I’m thinking instead of an HDMI dongle. It fits into the HDTV’s HDMI port (or the AV receiver to get Dolby 5.1) and has Wi-Fi. It connects over the household Wi-Fi, authenticates, and delivers TV programming either via Wi-Fi or coaxial cable or both. Its software provides the UI and the authentication/decryption. It can be simply mailed to the customer in a small envelope. Problem solved. Almost.

There is one problem. however, and that’s electrical power. Fortunately, that problem is being addressed with a technology called Mobile High Definition Link (MHL). Here’s an explanation.

The original idea behind MHL is to provide a simple, high speed link into an HDTV from a tablet or smartphone. HD video goes into the MHL-enabled HDMI port and a minimum of 500 mA at 5V comes out to, say, charge the tablet. The advantages over AirPlay are simplicity (for non-Apple customers) and speed, up to 3 Gbps.

A New Breed of HDTV Accessories

While MHL may have been intended for phones and tablets and other devices to connect to an HDTV easily, it’s that electrical power available that is getting interest. It opens the door for a new generation of plug-in, stand alone accessory devices that have Wi-Fi and can draw power. One of them is the Roku Streaming Stick, announced in January.

Roku streaming stickPhoto credit: Roku

This device obtains its content from household Wi-Fi, and delivers it to an HDMI port, where it also gets its electrical power. I spoke with the MHL Consortium, and they confirmed that major TV manufacturers like Samsung, Toshiba, and LG will be implementing MHL in several models in 2012. Other smaller companies will follow.

MHL Chart

Industry Support for MHL (credit: MHL Consortium)

MHL solves a big problem for the cable industry when the user doesn’t have or need a set-top box or DVR. But there are solutions to the DVR need as well. If content can be delivered at anytime, as with the Apple TV, then there is no need for a DVR except to skip over commercials. DirecTV is getting ready to do just that by providing streaming video to your iPad.  But if you pay for content ala carte, as with the Apple TV, there are no commercials to skip over. So all you really need is pause and rewind/fast forward.

MHL also solves a problem for Roku. There’s no longer a box that needs 1) an Ethernet cable and 2) a power cord and 3) and HDMI cable snaking to the TV.

What About Apple?

Would Apple utilize this technology? I wonder if the next generation Apple TV won’t be similar to the Roku Streaming Stick. It gets its content from an AirPort Extreme. Soon we’ll have 802.11ac, eliminating once and for all the need for Ethernet and a wire — which most people don’t have in their living room anyway. MHL means no wires at all.

Plus, the iPad 3 (some are saying “iPad HD”) and Apple TV 3 both converge, at the same time, on 1080p. It’s all a dream come true for Apple.

As is Apple’s custom, a simpler way to configure and manage the Apple TV 3 might be by controlling it with an iOS device. That eliminates the remote control as well. (Remote control sold separately if you need it.)

Content from the iPad 2/3 will, as before, be streamed to the Apple TV 3 with AirPlay, just as we do now with the second generation Apple TV. Nothing changes there except that we have an easier to use Apple TV 3. Just plug it in and enter your Wi-Fi password and Apple ID. No wires for the iPad 3. No wires for the Apple TV 3.

There are rumors that Apple may say something about a new Apple TV at the iPad 3 event on March 7.  However, they would make a compelling combination even if the rumored Apple TV is announced later. But with the cable companies and Roku jumping all over MHL, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Apple do something with it as well.

In any case, the set-top box looks to soon be history.