What the next Apple TV needs to succeed

Apple's hobby is losing out to more serious contenders from Amazon, Google, and Roku. But a new Apple TV is on the way.

Apple TV
Credit: Jared Newman

An Apple TV update has reportedly been in the cards for a few months now, and late last week, reports suggested that the much-awaited new version of the set-top box would arrive this fall.

But the question on everybody’s mind is exactly what such an update will entail. The existing Apple TV has grown long in the tooth without a really substantial update since the second-generation version appeared in 2010. (The third generation, which debuted in 2012, added a better processor and support for 1080p.) No surprise there for a product that Apple executives have repeatedly categorized as a “hobby.”

Meanwhile, competitors like Amazon, Roku, and Google have continued to raise the bar, adding support for apps, better search features, and new form factors. But Apple makes its bread and butter not by being first, but by entering a populated category and being the best. So when a new Apple TV does arrive, what might it bring?

Talk back to your TV

Voice interaction via Siri has become a staple of both the iPhone and Apple Watch, but the Apple TV has so far been left out on the fun. Rumor has it that Siri may at last make its way to the living room in the next iteration. This is far from unprecedented: Amazon’s Fire TV supported simple voice search out of the box, and Microsoft’s Kinect lets gamers control an Xbox, including media playback features, via voice commands.

Voice Search on the Fire TV Amazon

The Fire TV has a unified voice search feature you can use by speaking into the remote control.  

When it comes to ubiquitous voice control Amazon’s Echo is perhaps the most impressive implementation. The device’s seven microphones do a fantastic job of picking up audio anywhere in a room (or several rooms) and parsing it. But that device is also designed around voice search as its basic function, and the form factor a set-top box (or dongle that plugs into an HDMI port) isn’t ideal for that feature.

So what if Apple instead harnessed the Siri we already have—on our iPhones and our Watch—and made it a little smarter? If those devices could simply recognize that you have an Apple TV on a network, you could tell your phone to queue up a certain TV show on your Apple TV, or purchase a movie that you want to watch there later. Apple’s biggest strength, after all, is its ecosystem. Rather than reinventing the wheel, it can leverage the resources already at its disposal.

Apps galore

After years of anticipation, it seems that the redesigned Apple TV might once and for all bring apps to the living room. Currently the set-top box supports a variety of channels, but rather than separate apps, they’re each essentially different sections of the same “Apple TV app” that runs the set-top box.

Don’t expect all of your favorite apps to make the jump, for the simple reason that many—probably most—iOS applications won’t be useful on the Apple TV. Just as iOS required developers to change the way that they thought about apps—interacting directly with a touchscreen instead of an abstracted manner with a keyboard and mouse—the living room presents yet another distinct user experience.

Gaming on the Amazon Fire TV Amazon

Gaming on a set-top box like the Fire TV is no substitute for a console like the Xbox or PlayStation, but it's a fun value-add.

Video apps are the most obvious candidate for translation the TV, so expect to see updates to the video services that are already there, from YouTube and Vimeo to Netflix and Hulu to ABC and FOX.

The big new opportunity, however, may be games. Amazon and Roku both offer game titles for their set-top boxes, in generally they haven’t really caught on. There’s a variety of reasons for that: many of the games, for example, are ports of smartphone titles, and what works great on a touchscreen may not be as fun on a big screen. Meanwhile, there’s downward pressure from consoles like the Xbox and PlayStation, devices expressly designed for gaming.

As for exactly what an Apple TV App Store might look like, you don’t have to look far: the iOS App Store and Mac App Store seem to present a pretty clear picture of how Apple wants its storefronts to look. Just imagine navigating it with a remote instead of your finger or a mouse—or searching via voice control—and you’ve got a pretty good idea.

You’re in control

Speaking of remotes, how we’re going to control the Apple TV is the $64,000 question. Apple has long favored a simple remote control with a directional pad and a few common buttons, even while allowing for alternatives like using the Remote app for iOS and the Apple Watch or pairing a Bluetooth keyboard—but none provides an ideal experience. Your iOS device requires too much attention, while a Bluetooth keyboard is awkward and feels too much like using a computer.

So I wonder if perhaps it’s time to dust off a part of Apple’s history. It wasn’t so long ago that the paragon of Apple’s interface design was the iPod’s clickwheel. The benefits of the clickwheel were manifold: a simple, streamlined appearance; a touch-sensitive control that could be mediated by software (allowing, for example, faster scrolling when you moved your finger faster); and, most of all, the ability to easily use it without having to look. Plus, with the iPod Classic’s demise last fall, it’d be nice to see the clickwheel live on—and Apple’s certainly no stranger to reusing old intellectual property (iBooks, anyone?).

roku 3 remote Michael Brown

The Roku 3 remote has a handy headphone jack for private listening.

While they’re at it, it’d be great if Apple could take advantage of some of the other improvements in remote controls ushered in by their competitors. Roku’s, for example, has a headphone jack for private listening (I’d also accept allowing you to stream audio from your Apple TV directly to your iPhone, iPad, or Mac—a kind of reverse AirPlay); Amazon’s includes a dedicated voice search button and microphone on the device; and both those companies, as well as others, use remotes that rely on Bluetooth or RF, which don’t rely on line of sight, instead of the increasingly outdated infrared. (Given the preponderance of infrared universal remotes and solutions like IR blasters, however, that could be construed as more of a limitation.)

Despite the fact that gaming on the Apple TV could be popular, I don’t see Apple making an actual physical game controller to go along with it—it just doesn’t strike me as something the company cares enough to do. But I look forward to potentially being proved wrong.

settopsall Jared Newman

The Apple TV has more (and better) competition than ever, and we can't wait to see what comes next. 

The best of the rest

There are a whole host of other improvements that a new Apple TV might bring: support for the 4K resolution, much improved search, and perhaps even the ability to act as a HomeKit hub. One thing that we probably won’t see, however, is the rumored TV subscription service—the same report that pegged the upcoming Apple TV revision to September suggests that the service won’t arrive until later this year, or possibly even next.

I’ve been waiting for an Apple TV for a while—so long, in fact, that I’ve largely given up using my increasingly slow and unreliable Apple TV in favor of an Amazon Fire TV. But I’m ready to make the switch back, just as soon as Apple gives me a great reason to do so. You might say I’m on the edge of my seat.

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