How The New Apple TV May Change Your Living Room, Because It’s Not About “TV”


Apple is poised, so the rumors say, to release a revamped Apple TV — the company’s version of a so-called set-top box. It’s likely to be much more than a mere black chunk of plastic you hide among your audio-visual gear however. It could be the core of your digital house, whether or not it revolutionises your cable-TV viewing habits. It could even be Apple’s most important new device, more so than the Watch.


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Rumors have been building for a while that Apple is soon to release a new Apple TV that is no longer a “hobby” device — it’s thought to be a serious piece of hardware.

The theory is that the new TV will no longer run a cut-down version of iOS on very underpowered hardware as it has until now: The new TV will be more powerful (I guess running an up-to-date Ax series chip, or perhaps one that’s a generation old for cost reasons), it’ll have much of the same circuitry as an iPhone, including sensors and wireless connectivity (except 4G radios of course) plus it’ll run a tweaked version of iOS that has a modified interface but much of the same core, including the ability to run:

Apps

Apple TV has had sort-of-but-not-quite apps for a while, ones that were especially built and then auto-loaded onto it by Apple.

But the apps I’m talking about for the new TV unit are the million-plus “real” iPhone/iPad apps on the App Store of all types — social media, business productivity apps, cooking apps, video apps, to-do list apps, educational apps, language learning apps… the whole shebang. Oh, and games.

Definitely games.

This is important for a bunch of reasons, if it proves true. Firstly your TV (your biggest screen, by the way) becomes a new portal into your online life with an interface that’s full of Apple’s intuitive human-computer interface rather than the awful interface any “smart TV” you may have used before had (I have a Samsung one and it’s absolutely terrible).

Secondly the Apple TV could become a de facto gaming console, with hundreds of thousands of games already available, of both the light/casual type and serious titles made by well-known developers with a lot of cash backing. Such an Apple TV could easily become the go-to games console in the Wii-level category of gaming (and, if the price of the device is right, it could threaten some of the PlayStation’s and Xbox’s business…if developers are tempted to create top-rank titles for it).

There are a few clues in existing hardware and software as to why this may be possible: Firstly the iPhone 6-plus had a feature that allowed you to turn the screen sideways and the entire UI switched into landscape format, like the iPad’s screen does. A landscape screen format is, of course, what your TV has. Secondly iOS renders and downsamples to a screen resolution of 1920 by 1080 pixels for newer iPhones… and that’s the same number of pixels your flat-screen TV has.

But for full gaming, UI and app control (gestures, multi-touch and so on) the tiny controller that Apple currently ships with its TVs simply won’t do. They have very limited controls of the up-down-menu-back type. So, Apple needs a new:

Controller/Remote

The rumors suggest that Apple has a new remote control that’s bigger than earlier editions and includes a touchpad area. We don’t know much more, but let’s think about it…

Apple has been shipping touchscreen/touchpad devices for years now and more or less invented the multi-touch interface for portable and laptop devices. It would be easy to take the tech from any MacBook’s touchpad and put it in a remote — including force touch (Apple’s new interface toy that’s in newer MacBooks and the Apple Watch). A touchpad like this would let you control an iOS-based TV as if you were touching your TV screen (though interface tweaks like showing your finger positions on the screen itself will be needed). It’s basically a modified version of the Magic Trackpad Apple already sells.

The remote would likely connect to the Apple TV over Bluetooth 4, so it would have a longer battery life, and it could include all the magnetic, acceleration and tilt sensors that an iPhone includes. This would allow you to, for example, control racing games by “steering” the remote.

Oh and then there’s Audio — what happens if the remote includes a small loudspeaker and a couple of microphones for good listening and noise-cancelling powers? A speaker would let your TV communicate with you in a more personal way, perhaps sending background sounds to you from games, and a microphone could let you make FaceTime or Skype audio calls or access:

Always-On Siri

Siri is much-maligned, but I use her almost every day at least a couple of times — and much more so now I wear an Apple Watch and simply have to raise it and say “Hey Siri” to get her attention. I use it for things like intiating a Google search, trying to find out a detail that Wolfram Alpha can help with, launching phone calls, finding my friends or Shazamming a song. But Siri has long been capable of more, including launching apps, and if she is in your living room, listening for a voice command all the time through your new Apple TV remote, then she may become very important.

Imagine sitting on your sofa and simply asking to play Angry Birds, start a FaceTime call, Google a fact or play a piece of music or a video…without having to move.

This is a bit similar to Amazon’s Echo, which is a strange device with what seems to be aimed at a confusing target audience but which is nevertheless quite well liked (I can see it would make a great device to put in the kitchen, for example). But an always-on Siri in your home could be more powerful because it’s integrated into a more powerful device — the new Apple TV. Think of it as the first time tech like that in the movie “Her” gets into your daily life.

Of course an always-on Siri needs certain things like:

A Charger Dock For The Remote

Recently filed documents suggest Apple is going to improve its wireless mouse and keyboards with Bluetooth 4 and lithium-ion batteries. This will enable some design changes, but more importantly it means these peripherals will be rechargeable.

So what if Apple’s new TV remote, which will consume more power than earlier units because of the touchpad and so on, has the same design? It will need regular charging, and this could be annoying unless… Apple uses a wireless charging solution like that it’s just launched with the Apple Watch. This is elegant: A little charger puck that sits by your sofa or on your coffee table, and you drop the remote on it when it’s not in use.

Oh, and by the way, having an open mic to listen to Siri all the time would drink down battery power…so Siri is only activated on the Watch when you tilt it in a certain way, and it’s only always-listening for “hey Siri” on iPhones when they’re plugged in.

Siri activated in this way means you could interact with your Apple TV even if your TV is switched into standby mode… And if the Apple TV hardware includes HDMI CEC protocols it could even turn your TV on and switch it to the Apple TV input channel depending on what verbal commands you gave it.

Always-on Siri listening via a charging remote control also allows you to:

Access Apple Music

…very easily. Like this: “Hey Siri, play me something by the Clear Plastic Masks?” or “Play my workout playlist”.

This could make Apple Music more a part of your life, and it could help Apple boost Music’s subscriber numbers. Because the set-top box has Bluetooth chips maybe you’ll even be able to connect a Bluetooth headset so you can listen to music (or audio from games) without bothering other people in the house. If it supports a full headset protocol you could even make Skype calls or activate Siri while you’re wandering around the house. Strange? Perhaps… but I already experience some of this functionality via my Apple Watch, which lets me walk around the house and make commands or calls while I’m far from my phone. The Watch could, of course, be another input device for a revamped Apple TV…and so could a regular iPhone.

Interesting. But to take thing’s a bit further there’s:

Apple HomeKit

Apple revealed its smarthome plans a while ago, but hasn’t done much about it… probably because it lacked a static “hub” that would sit in your home and be always connected to the Net, enable remote control through neat tricks like Siri’s voice commands, and, via Bluetooth or other means, connect to other devices like thermostats, rain sensors, smart electrical sockets, smart bulbs and so on.

Oh and that’s exactly what a smart Apple TV could be capable of, probably through Apple’s own protocols and its HomeKit-powered system… but of course third party smarthome apps could also be controlled this way.

I use two current-generation Apple TVs and they have one other nice “homey” feature… they show me photos that I and my other family members have shared as a screensaver that regularly pops up on the biggest screen in the house. This lifts the photos off our phones, where in general they sit unwatched, and puts them into our lives on a minute-by-minute basis. It’s rather lovely, and I can imagine a revamped Apple would have some subtle finesses that would improve my digital “home” in a similar way.

Notice that we’ve not mentioned:

Video And TV

…yet? This is very deliberate for three different reasons.

Firstly, rumors suggest that Apple hasn’t yet pulled together enough support from “the cable TV industry” to launch the new TV with a full, futuristic video/TV/movie on-demand function that enables “cable-cutting”. This is possible, given how entrenched that industry is. But we can see that there are slight signs of change, as companies even as old-fashioned as Fox are allowing you to “sort-of cut the cable” and watch Fox Play on smartphones and so on, though you do still have to pay for a TV service (at least this is the case in my country…not sure about yours).

Secondly, when tech writers mention this issue they are nearly always talking about the U.S. cable TV market. It may be a surprise to learn that this is not the only cable market in the world, nor the only source of TV programming, and that other countries have TV broadcasting services that work in a different way. Let’s mention the BBC for example — a national broadcaster that makes some of the best TV in the world, and which is (essentially, though there is a license fee) broadcast for free to millions of Brits. Other nations even supply TV in different ways: For example, I’ve had high-definition TV and fast Net delivered to my house over fiber for over 5 years (at a very reasonable price too) with a smart set top box supplied by a land-based phone company. It’s pretty normal here.

The TV industry is a mess when you look at distribution (with a bit of monopolising thrown in), however, and there are different habits and protocols and even laws everywhere. So what would happen if Apple launched a new service that operated via an open standard, communicating with your existing TV provider’s hardware and bringing video feeds onto the screen via the Apple TV? Just a suggestion… I think this is a longshot. But it would be a neat stopgap before Apple causes a revolution in the whole industry like it did with music, phones and computing.

Which brings me to “thirdly”: I don’t think TV/movies or even video is the most important capability of a fully smart Apple TV. I’ll explain why when I finish wondering:

USB C or Lightning?

How will the new Apple TV get power? Apple is currently embracing three different power standards for its main consumer-facing devices: MagSafe for some of its laptops, USB C on its new very minimalist and future-facing MacBook and Lightning on its iPads and iPhones. Oh yes, there’s also wireless charging for the Apple Watch.

MagSafe is on its way out, I suspect, even though it’s clever. It’s not a fit for an always-on device like the Apple TV anyway.

USB C is how most computers are going to connect to power and peripherals in the near future. The connection is reversible, so it’s easy to connect, and it can transmit lots of power and data. A USB connector (or even a couple, one in, one out?) on a new Apple TV would let you hook it up for power, or connect it to peripherals…of some type. It could even let you charge your phone or the remote via an out-going connection.

And then there’s Lightning, a proprietary smart reversible data-and-power format which anticipated (or caused…) USB C by years. It’s Apple’s standard for iPhones and iPads, it’s simple, it’s well known, it’s already designed into the iPhone’s circuitry and if that circuitry is the basis for the new Apple TV, well, then, Lightning may be what Apple chooses.

Or it may not, and it may go for a direct-to-the socket connection like the current TV units do. But I’d be surprised by this. My money is on USB C.

Which leaves me one question to ask:

How Much Will The New TVs Cost?

This is a tricky one. The exisiting TVs cost the equivalent of around $100 where they’re on sale around the world. That’s cheap, given that the hardware inside is more or less like an iPhone (without screen, battery and so on) and they sell for many hundreds of dollars when they’re not subsidised by phone networks.

But a more powerful Apple TV would have more and better hardware inside, plus that new remote sounds like it could be a pretty pricey piece of kit by itself — the Magic Trackpad sells for €79 where I live right now, for comparison.

However, I think Apple’s going to be smart about this. By using current or last-gen iPhone components it can keep the cost of the new TV down through economies of scale, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the TV go on sale for $99 or (more likely) a price close to $150, like $129. This is still cheap sounding, and certainly cheaper than other iDevices, and is even comparable to cheap games consoles. It’s also possible, though, that the devices may sell at hardware cost or even a loss (some of which could be recouped by selling secondary remotes — useful for gaming — for a price like $50).

Apple won’t mind this, I suspect. Because at this price the Apple TV could become the cheapest way to get a full iOS and App Store experience. Remember Apple makes 30% of every purchase through the App Store, and if lots and lots of people buy Apple TVs then this could become an important new revenue stream when iPad looks like it’s stable-to-declining, and the iPhone’s rocket-propelled soar through the market place can’t be sustained forever.

Food for thought, eh?

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Disclaimer: None of this is based on anything other than observation, deduction and guesswork. It’s informed guesswork, because I’ve been writing about Apple TV for years. But this is genuinely a thought exercise because I haven’t heard from anyone inside Apple about this. Oh, and if you’re going to accuse me of “breathlessness” or anything “fanboy”ish, forget it… I’m happy to admit I love my current gen Apple TVs and the way they interact with my family life (we don’t watch much “traditional TV” either, by the way), and I’m excited about how a next-generation unit would work.

Images via CC license from Flickr users: Gustavo Devito, Paul Hudson

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