• Apple: The Elephant in the (Living) Room

    Much like the iWatch, the rumour of an Apple TV (not the little black hockey puck, but an actual TV) is one that just won't die.

    Pundits are convinced that both the living room and the wrist are where Apple will make their next great innovation in hardware. To be honest, I don't care about smart watches. I spend almost every day working on a laptop and haven't worn a watch in years because the buckle scratches the crap out of laptop palm rests.

    I am, however, an avid consumer of video games, TV shows and movies so I've devoted a fair amount of thought to why everyone feels that Apple is the elephant in the (living) room.

    Unlike most of the pundits out there (professional or amateur) I don't think the hardware is what needs to change and I can't see Apple releasing an actual TV for two reasons:

    1. People don't buy new TVs every 1 or 2 years.

    I've confessed to constantly lusting after the shiny and new already, but I'm still rocking my 6 year old 32" Sony Bravia with it's single HDMI port and I probably will be for a while. It's been rock solid since I bought it, has survived moving house in the middle of a hailstorm and stubbornly refuses to die so I can get something new.

    Apple simply won't be able to commoditise the TV the way they have done the mp3 player, the phone and, to a certain extent, the notebook computer.

    2. The hardware isn't actually the problem. The real problem is that TV and Set Top Box Software and UI sucks.

    TVs are great, they look awesome, they're super thin and they connect to all sorts of cool stuff like streaming media boxes, Skype cameras and video game consoles. The hardware really is where it needs to be to push a huge, highly detailed picture into your face a hundred times a second.

    TVs greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: you get home, pour yourself a tasty beverage, flop down on the couch, grab your remote and there's stuff to watch right there. You don't even need to think about it as long as you're okay with whatever is on TV right now. If you're not, just flick the channel.

    Where that fails is when you have 900 channels with nothing on. Of course, there's stuff on! Its just that a lot of it is utter shite. That's where on demand streaming comes in, but the current offerings are all built around interfaces that contain endless lists of shows that you have to dig through to find what you want to watch.

    In both cases, the problem is too much choice but on demand streaming lacks the immediacy of traditional TV.

    It also lacks the joy of discovering a new show simply by flicking through channels. Lets face it, there's no way in the world I would've actively sought out RuPaul's Drag Race, which is easily the best half hour of reality entertainment on TV right now, had I not been flicking channels on Foxtel at 1 in the morning.

    On demand services need a UI overhaul to facilitate both that ease of use and ease of discovery. Google took a crack at it with GoogleTV and failed. Samsung, LG, Panasonic and Sony have all baked some form of app/streaming platform into their current crop of "smart" TVs as well but as a general rule those interfaces suck because they're being designed as secondary to the traditional TV watching experience.

    This is where Apple could step in and do one of the things that they do really well: design a user interface from the ground up around an experience and have the iTunes Store deliver the content.

    This is what they did with the original iPod. Steve famously demanded that users be able to get to their music on the iPod in 3 clicks because the music was what was important and digging through menus ruined the experience of listening to music. It wasn't there from day one, but eventually, the iTunes Music Store filled that iPod with music.

    Exactly the same thing needs to be done with on demand video content. Solve that conundrum and then all that really matters is the content. And, as the saying goes, content is king.

    In terms of content, for once, video game console manufacturers are ahead of the curve even if its taken them a while to get there.

    Looking at the current Xbox 360 dashboard (top) & Playstation
    Store (bottom) it's clear that there's been a shift in focus.

    Over the course of this console generation, both Sony and Microsoft have moved their respective console offerings from video game only devices towards being platforms for multiple streaming services. They also offer their own store fronts with TV Shows, Movies and Music and depending on which region you're in, you can get a handful of different video streaming apps for either the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 including the likes of Netflix, Hulu, ABC iView and Foxtel. Of course, at the outset they did have some physical media playback in the form of Bluray and HD-DVD as well as support for streaming from your PC but both have faded into the background and, particularly on the Xbox 360, have been buried deep in the user interface.

    The Xbox 360 is nearly 8 years old, the Nintendo Wii and PlayStation 3 are nearly 7 years old. None of them were built with streaming services or, in some cases, the Internet itself in mind.

    We're right at the dawn of the next console generation and that's all changing. The Playstation 4 has a multitude of streaming partners out of the gate. The next Xbox, code named Durango, is rumoured to have the same. Hell even Nintendo, who has traditionally taken a fingers-in-ears-lalalalala-I'm-not-listening approach to the internet and media functionality in general (friend codes anyone?), is jumping in feet first with YouTube, Netflix and Hulu as well as their own service called TVii, which right now integrates with your DVR (if you're in the US or Canada) and uses the new gamepad for second screen content.

    Make no mistake, all three of the big console manufacturers are looking at how the landscape has changed as well as what Apple did with the App Store. They're now considering their consoles as platforms that can evolve over time rather than a box that'll get replaced in 3 or 4 years. They tried that with the previous generation, but the hardware wasn't really built with that in mind. This time round, they're skating to where the puck is going, rather than where it is today.

    I'll also guarantee that two of them are holding their breath, looking towards Cupertino and hoping that they've gotten out in front of whatever Apple's doing.

    Sure alongside their own iTunes offerings, Apple have Netflix, Hulu and a couple of other baked in streaming services depending on your region. But the streaming services have to partner with them specifically to make it into the box and it takes an OS update to deliver new features, services or simple interface changes. As it stands today, it'd take a special effort and a partnership with Apple for the BBC to get something like iPlayer onto the AppleTV. Yes you can AirPlay from BBC iPlayer or ABC iView but its not exactly the greatest experience and often costs you that all important second screen experience which, according to my lovely fiancé, Fiona, is now crucial for Wikipediaing (yes it's a verb now) the entire plot of the show you've just started watching.

    As for the iTunes Store, the rumours that have been swirling for years now are that Apple have something up their collective sleeve when it comes to TV but the networks won't come to the table. I can't really blame them, they saw the strangle hold Apple got on the music industry and they don't want to fall into the same trap.

    This is where Apple could break from their current model and do one of the other things they're really good at: leverage the App Store along with their UI design language to create an experience that others can plug their content networks into through an app.

    That's exactly what they've done with the iPhone and iPad. I've already mentioned iPlayer and iView. Both are fantastic experiences on the iPad, but would need a rethink of the UI to make them work with a remote instead of multitouch.

    With an App Store on the AppleTV, the hurdles of special partnerships and needing OS updates to deliver new features/services go away while at the same time opening up a world of choice for the consumer. Especially if Apple does something smart with the interface that pulls highlighted content out of the apps onto the front screen so you can jump right into it, just like you can with the Movies and TV Shows from the iTunes Store today.

    While Apple may not be able to sell as many TV shows or movies with this model, it frees them from having to negotiate content deals for the iTunes store. It makes them a delivery mechanism analogous to the airwaves or cable network. They could then just take a chunk of the subscription as they do with BBC iPlayer on the iPad and iPhone today.

    TV Shows and Movies aren't the only content we consume on the TV. Video Games account for a sizeable portion of that content to the point where Valve Software, who are traditionally a PC developer/retailer, are themselves pushing into the living room alongside Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo, with what everyone in the press is calling the SteamBox (between them The Verge and Polygon have the best ongoing coverage of the SteamBox).

    There are also a number of Android based micro-consoles like the Ouya and GameStick that are trying to stake out their own claim in the living room.

    To understand why Valve and others are jumping into the fray now and why Gabe Newell feels like they have to get there ahead of Apple, you have to look at how gaming in general has changed and is continuing to change.

    The biggest change in gaming over the last few years hasn't happened in the living room or in the study. Its happened on the go with portable games.

    In early 2006 Nintendo released the successor to, and first redesign of, the Nintendo DS called the DS lite. People went nuts for it and they dominated the handheld market over the next few years.

    Sony also jumped in on the portable gaming bandwagon with the original PlayStation Portable and followed a similar path of revision with the PSP2000/3000 and PSP GO which, despite being more capable than the DS, never took off in the same way.

    When the PSP and original DS launched iPod and mobile phone games were generally crappy versions of Solitaire or clunky ports of Tetris and Zuma. By the time the last major redesign of each, the Nintendo 3DS and the Playstation Vita, rolled around that had all changed. Apple had entered and started to dominate the portable gaming arena with the App Store, the iPod touch and, to a lesser extent, the iPhone and iPad.

    Towards the end of 2011 Flurry.com charted the trend away from
    portable consoles and towards iOS and Android portable gaming.

    The App Store almost single handedly changed how people think about portable gaming and, more importantly, what they're willing to pay for a portable gaming experience. While Nintendo and Sony were both charging $40 - $60 a game, competent clones and some completely original titles were appearing on the App Store for a couple of dollars.

    As iOS devices have become more powerful, they've also become more competent at pushing the sorts of graphics that were only seen on the PSP and PS Vita. They've also gone from PSP to PS Vita level graphics far quicker than Sony has.

    Could Apple do the same with the AppleTV as it's done with the iPod touch? Possibly.

    Again, the only thing it really needs is an App Store. It already has the same hardware as an iPod touch, sure there'd need to be some interface tweaks but I can't see it taking much to get iOS games running on an AppleTV (I'm not a developer though, so I maybe totally wrong on that front) especially when you look at the RealRacing franchise which has supported AirPlay for a while. Add the fact that iOS 6 has enabled Bluetooth support on the AppleTV and there's nothing to stop someone, maybe even Apple themselves, from releasing a bluetooth game pad for the thing.

    Sure, you're not likely to get a Halo 4 sized AAA game on the AppleTV any time soon (storage more than anything else would be the limiting factor) but it could certainly be a viable alternative to Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network for smaller indie titles like Journey or Bastion (which is already available on iOS).

    Once you've got an App Store on there, as with TV and movies, you're not just limited to native App Store offerings. With the likes of OnLive! and Gakai out there on demand streaming of video games is almost as viable as streaming video.

    So where does that leave Valve and their SteamBox? Well right now there is no real SteamBox, it's more of a catch all term that covers either a living room PC running Linux or Windows with Steam in Big Picture mode, or an AppleTV like device that will allow you to stream games to your TV from your PC one Mac in another room. So with an App Store in play Valve could always release a SteamBox app for the AppleTV along with their own bluetooth controller allowing you to stream those games from your PC to your living.

    That's all well and good…but is it actually going to happen?

    We know that the AppleTV has graduated from a hobby to an area of intense interest but there's no way to tell if they're close to rolling something out or if they're only just now starting to look what they can do with it.

    I, for one, think (and desperately hope) that they are close to rolling something out and that we'll at least get a glimpse of it at WWDC 2013.

    Why do I think they're close? On top of all the "area of intense interest" talk from late last year, Walter Isaacson's biography contained the following quotes from Steve Jobs:

    I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use, it would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud.
    It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it…
    What I'm hoping that means is that he and Apple did finally crack the streaming service interface conundrum and the reason that we haven't seen it yet is because they had to pour so much work into Maps last year just to ditch Google's offering. Lets face it, there are only so many person hours in a day, and with the massive effort that went into Apple Maps something had to give.

    I just hope that all the additional work they've had to put in to Maps since iOS6 launched hasn't further pushed back whatever it is that they're planning for the AppleTV.

    I guess we'll just have to wait until WWDC 2013 to find out.

    Alec lives in rainy Brisbekistan with his lovely editor and soon-to-be wife, Fiona. By day he's a Cisco certified network engineer who deploys IP Telephony infrastructure from his trusty 2011 unibody MacBook Pro. By night he plays far too many video games and watches way too many Ru-Paul's Drag Race marathons. You can normally find him lurking on the forums (formerly thatfilthyspringbok), follow him on Twitter, Google+ or on his blog, Inane Geekery.

    His opinions are all his own and do not reflect those of MacTalk or his employer.
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