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Eyes on the next Apple TV

When Apple calls a press event it’s always fun to speculate about what wonders the company intends to unleash. Next week’s March 7 event is no different. The smart (and obvious) money is on the iPad 3. But much as I’m intrigued by the idea of a new iPad with possibly better performance, a higher resolution screen, and improved camera, that’s not the only potential product that piques my interest. In the Department of Other Shoes, I’m also intrigued by the idea of Apple dropping a new Apple TV.

Why Apple TV 3?

My thinking goes this way: If Apple releases an iPad with a higher screen resolution, that iPad should be able to play 1080p video. Lovely as that video would be on an iPad, it would be umpteen times more spectacular on an HDTV—one that the iPad projects to. With the correct adapter, you can certainly tether your iPad to a TV, but if that’s really Apple’s preferred solution, why bother with AirPlay, the technology that allows you to stream audio and video from an iOS device to an Apple TV?

The truth is that Apple’s putting its muscle behind AirPlay and so this is the avenue we should look to for iPad playback on an HDTV. The problem is, the current Apple TV supports only 720p video. So, put mathematically, I pose the problem this way:

iPad 3 + X = 1080p over AirPlay

Let’s check the answers area at the back of the book and… yes, X = Apple TV 3.

You say your book says X = iTV (the much rumored real-live-take-up-a-mess-of-space-in-your-living-room HDTV)? I’m not convinced.

A iPad that supports 1080p could stream that content using AirPlay and the Apple TV.

I have to think that Apple sees the iPad 3 and next Apple TV as two sides of the 1080p coin with the word “Accessory” stamped under the image of the Apple TV on the Tails side of that coin. At $99 a small black box akin to the Apple TV nicely fits that description. A $1500 HDTV that requires you shove aside you current, perfectly good HDTV, not so much.

That doesn’t discount such a device existing at some time. I only suggest that a solution along these lines presented on March 7 without an inexpensive-small-black-box option would generate a fair bit of “Hey cool, all I have to do to get great video from my new iPad is cough up another fifteen-hundred smackers” snark.

Content is king

Other than the ability to project 1080p video, what might an Apple TV 3 provide? Putting aside the things some of us might want that will likely never happen—external storage via a USB port and DVR capabilities, for example—and the one feature you can bank on—act as a way to wirelessly mirror your Mac’s display to a connected HDTV (a feature that will part of OS X Mountain Lion this summer)—such a device would have access to a greater variety of content.

One reason the original Apple TV remained a hobby for as long as it did is because it was tied to iTunes and the iTunes Store. Unless you purchased or rented a lot of media from the Store or ripped your movies and plunked them into your iTunes library, the device wasn’t much good to you. The second iteration of the device was more helpful not only because of its eventual AirPlay support, but also because Apple expanded its offering to include Netflix and other streaming services.

But if Apple wants to tempt people to cut the cable and line up behind a la carte consumption (and, despite resistance from the networks, cable/satellite companies, and the ISPs controlled by those companies, that’s where this is headed), the Apple TV needs to go farther in regard to content. The Apple TV’s current lineup of streaming services is too limited.

Adding a service like Hulu would be a big help (killing Hulu’s commercials for paid subscribers would be an even bigger help). Likewise, cutting deals with HBO and Showtime to provide HBO Go-like service on the Apple TV would be another boon. Apple could further promote Apple TV sales by offering a broader range of live streaming events, such as the Paul McCartney event streamed in February.

And so it evolves

Given the importance of content and the natural desire of cable companies and their ISPs to keep a tight rein on it, the next Apple TV can’t be the answer to our cable-cutting desires. Apple’s not about to leap feet-first into the content creation business nor should you expect to see a white truck plastered with Apple Cable Co. patrolling your neighborhood anytime soon.

Like it or not, Apple requires the cooperation of people who produce the content that we want to see. What we can hope for is that the next version of that Apple TV will provide access to a larger dollop of that content—enough that we find a reason to own such a device but not so much that the networks and providers answer Apple’s next call with “Babe, I’d love to go over this with you again, but I’ve gotta see a guy about a thing. Don’t call me, I’ll call you.”

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