Imagining a next-generation Apple TV

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Apple rumors are a dime a dozen. Talk of an Apple watch is everywhere, analyst Gene Munster has been flogging the Apple television set idea for years, and of course it wouldn’t be late summer without new iPhone and iPad rumors.

But lately I’ve been thinking about one rumor in particular. On a recent episode of The Talk Show, John Gruber was joined by TechCrunch-writer-turned-venture-capitalist MG Siegler, and Siegler dropped this intriguing tidbit:

The latest things I’ve heard are that some sort of television product (not necessarily a television screen, but something) could be coming as soon as this November. And I think there’s some surprises there, about what it could actually be. And I don’t know this for sure yet...but there’s whispers out there that the interaction with it could be the interesting thing. People have talked about voice, but I think that might be out the window and there might be some new way to interact with whatever this thing is.

As the owner of the first two generations of the Apple TV box, I’ve been trying to figure out what Apple’s next move here might be. After hearing Siegler’s comments (and then a discussion about them on the new podcast The Prompt), I began to imagine what a reinvented, fourth-generation Apple TV might do. Here’s what I came up with.

Take over Input 1 by cooperating: Add-on boxes are generally consigned to an auxiliary input on a TV. Watching content on an Apple TV, or a Roku box, or whatever involves switching to a second input on the TV. Whenever Internet TV boxes have tried to take over Input 1 (usually reserved for your cable or satellite box), they’ve generally failed. (See: Google TV.) And I don’t think Apple wants to get into the game of creating a DVR or a device that controls your cable box via a hacky infrared connection.

If Apple wants to get to Input 1, and if the company doesn’t want to make a do-all, be-all box, then the new device will need to get out of the way. Some devices, such as Google TV and Microsoft’s forthcoming Xbox One, point the way here. Imagine a new Apple TV device that has both HDMI input and output ports, so that the content of your existing cable or satellite box could appear on your TV normally, but the Apple TV could overlay other information (or override the picture entirely) when it saw fit.

Maybe Apple can take a cue from the Kinect.

Improve interaction by adding more inputs: Imagine an Apple TV with sensors like those on Microsoft’s Kinect—at the very least a microphone and camera—perching atop your TV. Now your TV is capable of handling FaceTime video chats, able to send and receive video calls from the living room, ideally with some smart software to focus on the people who are talking. The microphone and camera might also allow the Apple TV to accept Siri-style voice commands or Xbox-style physical gestures, though I remain a bit skeptical. I’m a big fan of buttons, myself.

Make the second-screen experience an asset: There’s a lot of talk about the “second-screen” TV experience—watching a first screen (such as a big TV set) while simultaneously using a smaller second one (such as a phone or a tablet) to communicate via social media, look up things on, and the like. Imagine if the Apple TV were designed to supplement the second-screen experience (where Apple is already quite strong), to make the first screen a better companion to the second.

Apple could do some cool things here, such as overlaying stuff on top of the content from your cable or satellite box. (Maybe push notifications could appear right on the big screen.) Certainly it would make sharing easier; as with Google’s Chromecast, the idea of being able to find a funny video on the Internet and share it on the big screen instantaneously (without flipping over to a different input) is appealing.

Could the Apple TV be a game console without an App Store? As excited as I once was about the possibility of the Apple TV becoming a game console—with an App Store of its own and iOS devices as controllers—that still hasn’t happened, and I’m assuming that it won’t. I sometimes imagine that Apple would let iOS apps temporarily install helper apps on the Apple TV, making the big-screen experience more responsive than AirPlay can manage. I think mini-apps that spawn from your iOS device but run on your TV would be a pretty cool way for the second screen to influence the first.

But the more I think about gaming and the Apple TV, the more I despair. I’m starting to believe that Apple regards the gaming console much as it does the DVR: not mainstream enough, lacking enough growth potential, and too complicated. From Apple’s perspective, if people are having a great time playing games on their iPads and iPhones, the TV set on the wall just isn’t that important. The success that games have had on iOS gives me some hope that I’m wrong.

Keep doing what the Apple TV does now: Of course, the new device would still have everything the Apple TV currently offers, including access to streaming video, iTunes music, photo libraries, and the like. Just throw in FaceTime, possible voice control, and the ability to overlay video on top of your current cable box.

Is that a revolutionary product? No, not really. For a truly revolutionary product, Apple will need to go “over the top” and break the cable and satellite companies’ hold on distributing TV content via subscription. The contractual issues alone make me dubious that any such product would provide a good experience for users. Chances are, it would have huge content holes and be riddled with compromises that were required to get the deal done.

So I’m pessimistic about the chances for a home-run Apple television product, but I’m intrigued by the possibilities of an upgraded Apple TV that’s more closely tied to iOS apps and to the main TV input. We’ll see what develops this fall.

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