Ever since Steve Jobs gave us a sneak peak at Apple’s internal iTV project at 2006’s “Showtime” event, we’ve been waiting for Apple’s pioneering set-top box to mature. Officially released just moments before the iPhone, Apple TV was designed to be the magical gadget that bridged the gap between the small screens on our mobile devices and the giant ones in our living rooms, wirelessly delivering our music, movies and photos to a place where they could look and sound their best.
At the time, Jobs triumphantly declared that the square box “completes the story” that started with the iPod. But we know now the story didn’t end there: With the dawn of the iPhone, iPad and now Apple Watch, our digital lives have become far greater than the things that entertain us. But the box that sits under our TVs hasn’t really evolved with it.
Rumors have pegged Apple TV for a long overdue update this year, and the WWDC invitation seems to suggest that it might come sooner than later: Even without a deep forensic analysis it’s hard to miss the telltale rounded square silhouette in the center of the logo with the rather suggestive slogan, “The epicenter of change.”
For most of us, Apple TV is little more than the “hobby” Apple has positioned it to be—a fun way to stream media and games without the hassle of wires or extra components—but it could very well be on its way to becoming the command center for our homes.
Cracking the code
Walter Isaacson raised the specter of a flat-screen Apple television four years ago with a tantalizing quote from Jobs in his biography, but these days the idea of an Apple TV set falls just below a car on the feasibility scale. But even if we may never have an Apple symbol embossed on the back of a 50-inch HD screen, that doesn’t mean Jobs’ vision of “an integrated television set that is completely easy to use (and) would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud” won’t come to fruition.
Tim Cook certainly isn’t giving up on it. During Apple’s second-quarter conference call, he signaled that the entertainment industry is “on the edge of major, major changes,” and while he was characteristically coy about his plans, he added, “I think Apple can be a part of that.” There may be some 60 channels currently playing on Apple TV, but to get anything resembling live television, you need to have a cable subscription first. As long as the likes of Comcast and Time Warner are acting as middlemen, Apple TV will always be a secondary device, relegated to the third or fourth input in our home theaters.
Of course, Apple’s push for a TV service isn’t exactly breaking news. Negotiations have been rumored for years, and a recent report from the Wall Street Journal claims that Apple is nearing a deal for a TV service with a couple dozen channels, including ABC, CBS, ESPN, FOX and presumably a few other popular basic cable mainstays such as Food Network and A&E. HBO Now and Dish’s Sling TV have already put serious cracks in the foundation, but a significant investment from Apple would be the boost online television needs to break through; and coupled with the on-demand content, an Apple-overhauled Beats subscription service, and the iTunes movies we already stream, such a service would certainly give Apple TV far greater prominence in our living rooms, paving the way for a multitude of advancements.
Even with different operating systems, our Macs, iPhones, iPads, and Watches are more integrated than ever thanks to Apple’s Continuity feature in iOS 8 and Yosemite. But the harmony stops with Apple TV. Sure, we can stream games and movies with AirPlay, but for the most part, the sharing experience is far less seamless than it is on iOS and OS X.
For example, if I’m playing a game on my iPhone, I need pause it and turn on AirPlay mirroring if I want to transfer my progress to Apple TV. Or if I’m watching an episode of Game of Thrones on HBO Now, I need to pause it, open the app on my iPhone and find it in my Watchlist. And if I rent a movie on my Apple TV, I can’t transfer it at all.
But the next generation of Apple TV has the potential to be the ultimate Handoff device, an always-on box that lets you seamlessly transfer media to your TV with little more than a tap of the remote on your Watch. And it could extend to more traditional DVR functions, too: A killer feature would be the ability to record or save live shows and sports directly to our iCloud drives for easy watching and re-watching wherever we are, via Remote or some kind of a dedicated Apple TV app on our Macs and iOS devices
Apple TV’s interface is already simpler than the ones we get on our cable boxes, but an instant way to access media, apps, games and even productivity tools would up the ante considerably, transforming Apple TV into the digital hub it was meant to be and letting us keep our iPhones docked until we’re ready to leave, much like Apple Watch keeps us from reaching into our pockets all day.
Home sweet HomeKit
The Internet of Things has overtaken our homes, but while the gizmos and gadgets we use to lock and light our homes all offer some degree of intelligence over the “dumb” versions they replaced, most of them provide very disparate methods of control, mostly via separate iPhone apps. And while HomeKit integration was one of the marquis frameworks unveiled at WWDC, nearly a year later we’ve yet to see much in the way of any real advancements that utilize the technology.
The biggest advantage HomeKit offers over the piecemeal system is universal voice control—like telling Siri on your iPhone to turn off the lights downstairs when you’re too tired to get out of bed—but there are signs that Apple TV could be an integral part of the HomeKit experience. Apple added HomeKit support for Apple TV support in iOS 8.1, but has thus far been mum on what role the diminutive box will play, saying only that it works as a sort of liaison when remotely controlling devices with Siri.
But HomeKit’s promise of integration gives us the ability to create virtual bridges between devices, letting groups of gadgets be controlled in an instant. As our homes grow smarter, Apple TV could act as a hub to control the various zones we set up, letting us easily create and rearrange gadgets groups and allowing for faster and tighter integration between them.
We could tell it to dim the lights could dim when we start watching a movie. Or set a “romantic dinner” mode that tunes the Beats channel to a soft rock playlist and flips the “Do not Disturb” toggle. Or it could start preheating the oven based on the recipe we’re preparing. With Apple TV at the center of our home, the connected things we put in it could get a whole lot more useful, as they begin to form a single, seamless chain of automation that understands our routines and adapts to them.
Call and response
No matter how Apple TV ultimately fits into the HomeKit system, it’s a safe bet that Siri will be built into the next revision, bringing long-awaited features like dictation for searching and voice-controlled channel surfing. But streamlining navigation is likely only part of what Apple’s ever-expanding digital assistant will be capable of on Apple TV.
Siri may have started as a cool way to check the weather, but over the years it’s blossomed into an indispensable part of iOS, an omnipotent and omnipresent companion always ready to lend a hand or provide an answer. But its really only useful when an iPhone or iPad is within arm’s reach; even iOS 8’s “Hey Siri” feature only works if your iPhone is plugged in close enough to hear your command.
But Apple TV could transform Siri from a bit player into a star. Just like Amazon took the mobile personal assistant from the phone to the living room with its fascinating Echo tower, Apple could take a similar route with its digital media receiver, putting Siri at the center of our lives like never before. We could ask questions, change channels, turn on lights and play songs just by speaking, no matter how far away our iPhone is.
And with a closer relationship with iOS and OS X, Apple TV could be finally become the missing piece that Jobs introduced it as all those years ago. It’s probably unrealistic to think it’ll gain a remote camera for FaceTime calls, but a refined notification system could alert us to phone calls and messages while we’re watching TV, or suggest tuning to the end of a close basketball game.
And, of course, the opening of a dedicated App Store will expand the capabilities of Apple TV beyond anything it can do now. Just like they have with the iPhone and Apple Watch, developers will tap into the uniqueness of Apple TV to deliver apps that integrate with what we know but offer an experience tailored for a whole new platform. Apple TV is on the verge of an overhaul of such substantial proportions, it could very well transform the largest screen in our homes into the most important one.
Even if it happens to be made by Samsung.
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Michael Simon has been covering Apple since the iPod was the iWalk. His obsession with technology goes back to his first PC—the IBM Thinkpad with the lift-up keyboard for swapping out the drive. He's still waiting for that to come back in style tbh.