The Future of Apple TV and Front Row

Apple TV and Mac OS X’s Front Row software share a common history. Both are intended as a means of interacting with audio and video content. Both are based on the same code. Their user interfaces, although not identical, represent a “third front” — separate from both Mac OS X’s primary Aqua interface and the iOS interface. I believe this is an instance where two’s company and three’s a crowd. it’s time for Apple to dump the current Apple TV/Front Row software and start over.


Front Row first arrived on the scene back in October 2005.

Unlike most other Mac OS X applications, Front Row takes over your entire display, temporarily preventing access to any other part of Mac OS X — until you exit the application by pressing the Escape key. Although you can navigate Front Row via the Mac’s keyboard, it’s designed to work best with the Apple Remote.

While I find Front Row to be attractive for a few activities, primarily viewing movie trailers, I never use it. Mostly, I simply never think of launching it, preferring to stick with iTunes, QuickTime Player or Safari — and staying within the main Mac OS X interface.

Based on my own informal non-scientific survey, my preferences are far from unusual. It seems as if almost no one uses Front Row. The only significant exception are those who have their Mac (typically a Mac mini) hooked up to a television. In other words, it can work well for those using a Mac as a quasi-Apple TV.

Apple TV first shipped in 2007. Initially, its interface was almost identical to Front Row. Most recently, Apple TV’s “OS” has evolved into something separate from anything else Apple offers. Apple TV is not a star within Apple’s lineup. Steve Jobs (as recently as a few months ago) continues to refer to it as Apple’s “hobby” product — and remains pessimistic about its future prospects for growth.

Where does this leave us? With a Front Row application that almost no one uses and an Apple TV hobby product — both with an orphan interface that remains largely an afterthought for Apple. If anything was ripe for a major overhaul, this would have to be it.


Whether or not Apple is ready to elevate Apple TV from its hobby status, Apple appears to be getting ready to release a significant update of the product. For months now, rumor sites have been predicting that a revamped Apple TV (possibly to be renamed iTV) will be out before the year is over. Although rumors may be proved wrong, I believe this one is on target.

The major predicted change in the new Apple TV is one that makes perfect sense (at least to me). Apple TV’s user interface will be replaced by one that is already a proven success: the iOS. That is, Apple TV will run a variation of the same OS currently in use on the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad.

This makes sense on at least two levels.

First, it eliminates an unneeded and unpopular third “OS” for Apple devices, unifying everything Apple makes to run either Mac OS X or iOS.

Second, it would instantly provide Apple TV with a host of new and desirable features. How so? Because the new Apple TV would be able to run iOS apps, especially the iPad-optimized ones. This means it could do almost anything that you can now do on an iPad — on a television. The new Apple TV would arrive as a great game machine, capable of playing all the popular iPad-optimized games. It would also be able to stream Netflix movies, via the Netflix app. And so forth.

While the Apple TV may remain a hobby in Apple’s business structure, this new version will emerge as a much more compelling and popular hobby.

Although I have seen no rumors to this effect, I’ll go out on a limb with a related prediction: We will see a similar iOS-like conversion for Mac OS X’s Front Row software as part of next year’s release of Mac OS X 10.7. 

The unknown

It’s easy to say that Apple TV and Front Row will someday soon run a version of the iOS. Actually achieving this feat is harder — and will require resolving a few major questions. I don’t have the sure-fire answers, but that won’t stop me from offering some speculation:

Regarding the Apple TV, the biggest question is how do you use a touchscreen-based iOS with a device designed to display on a touchscreen-less television? I see a two-pronged potential solution:

  • Update the Remote app. Update the Remote app so that you could use an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad as a touchscreen remote for an iOS-based Apple TV. The current version of the Remote app already offers a Control mode that functions as a quasi-touchscreen method of interacting with the Apple TV. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to adapt this approach to work with a true iOS interface.

  • Introduce an Apple TV trackpad remote. Offer a new physical remote, to be included with the Apple TV, designed as a hand-held version of the Magic Trackpad. Similar to the revised Remote app, this would be used to interact with an iOS-based Apple TV. Alternatively, the Magic Trackpad itself could be expanded to include this functionality.

For these devices to function smoothly, an additional critical issue must be resolved: As you will be using a touchscreen or touchpad to navigate what you see on a separate screen, there needs to be a way to coordinate what your finger is doing on the remote (or trackpad) with what you are seeing the screen. Specifically, if you are trying to tap a button that you see on the television, you need to know when your finger is positioned over the button area on the corresponding remote device. Otherwise, you won’t know where and when to tap.

One possible solution, at least for navigating from the iOS Remote app, would be to duplicate the Apple TV screen on the remote itself. However, this would not be ideal for playing games, among other things, where you want your eyes focused on the television display rather than the remote. And it won’t work for a trackpad remote that has no screen. What might be a more workable solution would be to have the onscreen buttons (and other active areas of the screen) “light up” on the television as your finger “passes over” them from the remote. It might even work to have (as antithetical as it may sound) a cursor on the television screen to correspond to your finger location.

If Apple eventually provides Front Row with the same iOS makeover, it could borrow the identical remote solutions as for my proposed new Apple TV. However, there remains a further possibility here: Add a touchscreen to Mac displays. Actually, I’d be surprised if Apple doesn’t already have some touchscreen iMac prototypes hidden away in Cupertino. This technology is already available for PCs (take a look at HP’s TouchSmart PCs). Given the success of the iOS and its importance to Apple’s bottom line, Apple isn’t likely to cede this portion of the touchscreen market entirely to PCs. 

A touchscreen would allow a Mac, when running the revamped Front Row software, to function as a true iOS device. This would, again, include being able to run iOS apps. This would not be the dreaded replacement of the entire Mac OS X by iOS. Rather, it would be a side-by-side co-existence of the two OS versions. Eventually, despite potential usability problems with having to switch your focus (and your hands) back and forth between the keyboard and the screen, I expect some touchscreen features to gradually seep into the Aqua Mac OS X interface itself — again, not as a replacement for the existing OS but as an additional option.

Skeptical? Don’t forget that when the Mac was first released, many people laughed at the mouse-based interface, ridiculing it as a toy that would never be taken seriously. And we know how that turned out.