Apple wins patent that could potentially turn Apple TV into a cable box

Apple wins patent that could potentially turn Apple TV into a cable box

Apple has just been granted a patent that it applied for 6 years ago that would allow them to turn the Apple TV into a cable box of sorts. This means instead of simply being able to stream content from iTunes, Netflix, and now Hulu, you'd be able to watch regular tv as well.

The US Patent and Trademark office today approved a patent that was originally filed back on October 12th, 2006. The patent describes a product simliar to what we know as today's Apple TV with one big addition - live TV and DVR capabilities.

The patent application, originally filed Oct. 12, 2006, has mock ups of screenshots with various TV programing, including CBS, ABC, FOX, and HBO. There are several screenshots depicting a Letterman segment and other popular shows. Another screenshot shows a list of recorded shows. The patent applications also has images of search and browse functions, so it seems like the new features will be fully integrated with the old system.

Even though Apple was granted the patent it doesn't necessarily mean they'll use it anytime in the near future or at all. While many of us may dream of a world without evil cable and satellite providers, whether or not that will eventually become a reality is anyone's guess.

Source: CNET

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Allyson Kazmucha

Senior editor for iMore. I can take apart an iPhone in less than 6 minutes. I also like coffee and Harry Potter more than anyone really should.

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Reader comments

Apple wins patent that could potentially turn Apple TV into a cable box


If Apple is planning to use this as a set top box to allow people to watch the hand full of digital channels available for those who aren't already subscribing to Cable, sure. That might work. But this patent isn't going to give Apple a Cable network to hook up to. Comcast has no reason to play ball with Apple. Comcast not only owns the biggest cable network in the USA, they also own a major broadcast network now (NBC). Comcast can get subscribers easily without Apple. Apple needs Cable access more than Comcast needs to allow it on the Apple TV box. I don't see it happening any time soon, if at all. Comcast only has to look to Apple's dealings with AT&T to find many reasons to not work with them. They simply don't need anything from Apple. If you think about it, Apple's typical customer base already has cable and has no reason to even hook an Apple TV up to their home cable set up to get channels. The content offered on the Apple TV isn't compelling enough in comparison to existing Cable offerings, particular when it comes to sports channels, and let's face it, men watch sports on Cable.

You don't think Apple has enough money to fund their own Cable network? Yeah, okay. I wouldn't be surprised if they did because it wouldn't be the only mature market that they're broken into and dominated.

Sure, they have the money. After which they wouldn't have the money to do anything else.

It would take a decade just to be the bottom of the barrel cable provider. Meanwhile, they've pretty much lost their rear end trying to establish the market.

You do realize they would have to lay their own ground structure, right?

That undertaking would be insane. Typically, at most, a house has two choices of providers. The vast majority only has one.

They would be better off buying cable providers.

Indeed. Apple has two choices- 1) Spend billions building an infrastructure laying "cable" which would be expensive and meanwhile, Comcast continues to outgrow them no matter what they do and 2) Lease cable lines. Not as expensive but expensive enough. Comcast wouldn't have any reason to make it affordable to Apple. Comcast doesn't need Apple to get new customers. Some of the Dish networks would have more incentive to lease service to Apple, but again, they wouldn't have a need to make it affordable or advantageous to Apple. Either way, Apple wouldn't get an AT&T like deal from either Cable companies or Dish companies. The incentive just isn't there. The Apple TV customer base is much smaller than the existing user base of both Cable and Dish customers separately, much less combined.

I believe some cable companies (if not all, not sure on that), can use CableCards to bring cable box functions to subscriber owned devices. For example, I have two Tivos, both of them use cable cards to decode the programming from Comcast and record it. The only thing that I don't have access to is OnDemand functionality. Since CableCard is a standard, it should work with all cable providers that support CableCards.

Think beyond cable and satellite. Apple could, in theory, leapfrog all current providers if and when the "real 4G" cell networks are rolled out. 1Gbit/sec for low mobility users (home, office, pedestrians) and 100Mbit/sec for high mobility users (automobile, train.) You'd be able to stream live events and pre-recorded events from any device, anywhere. Wirelessly.

It might take 10 years for LTE to be upgraded to "real 4G," but Apple certainly seems to have the patience and long-term thinking to do it. They could completely avoid dealing with legacy cable and satellite operators. And it would be worth it.

A fascinating theory, but avoiding Comcast and Verizon (the TV provider) to entrust your entire delivery platform to Verizon Wireless and AT&T seems a strange definition of "worth it" :)

More to the point, the numbers you cite are for peak transfer rates, not guaranteed throughput. A bluray averages between 25-35Mb/s, and even compressed signals typically top out around 8Mb/s. Current DVRs records + watches 3 streams at once (some 4) so then you are talking about requirements of a sustained 8-25Mb/s per household during primetime hours to avoid noticeable degradation of what people have currently. With enough towers, perhaps that could still fit within "real 4G" as you put it, but that requires that Verizon and AT&T roll out 4G far more comprehensively and more reliably than they have 3G. Possible, but we are talking about an order of magnitude more investment (and competence, and muni government cooperation) on their parts to provide the sort of quality Apple would demand before betting their name on it.

I am over-the-airing the local HD channels right now. To be able to have some sort of interface to them via AppleTV - instead of switching source - would be awesome. DVR would be pretty killer as well, though I am fine with purchasing with iTunes at this point.

Imagine recording a show and then streaming it to your iPhone or MacBook Air or Pro via iCloud to watch on the go? That would be amazing.

The almost released Simple.TV DVR will do exactly what you are talking about - streaming and DVR functionality for OTA broadcasts. It will stream to the iPads and Rokus. Hopefully AppleTV will be able to stream Simple.TV stuff too.

This would make the ATV useable to me. Right now, switching inputs is a big enough inconvenience for me to let the ATV sit there unused or stick it in a guest bedroom as a Netflix box.

My only hope is they don't trip on current set top box manufacturers.

Here's how Internet based TV distribution could work commercially.

The current model means your subscribers have to buy set-top boxes, dishes, DVRs, Tuners.
You need installation engineers, decoders, call centers and so on.
With every new subscriber it will take a year of billing before you get back a single penny.

Apple could offer an alternative based on internet distribution and a thin client in the home.
Everything would be done in the data center.

From the point of view of the content owner. Apple will distribute your content for you alongside your other distribution deals. But with Apple you get paid, per user, per channel. You get paid, not in a year, but at the end of the month.

A more efficient distribution method, allows a better relationship between content owners and subscribers. Vast amounts of infrastructure could be removed. The creators get a better deal. The end users get a better deal. Only the middle men would be unhappy.

This is inevitable. But those middlemen might put up a fight.

This brings up another valid point- The Apple TV is currently dependent on your cable internet provider to stream content. The cable and dish providers will never allow any deal that allows Apple to gain any form of content delivery control over existing cable and dish networks and it's too expensive and time consuming for Apple to build their own infrastructure. The only way it would work is for Apple to buy a cable or satellite company in order to buy existing infrastructure, but it won't be Comcast and whoever it could be, they still wouldn't want to compete with Comcast.

Not true. Right now you can stream Netflix and Hulu and music using your high speed Internet. No ISP can really regulate any legal material being streamed to a paying consumers box , whether it's Apple Tv or any other provider.

Apple is gonna change the TV much like they did the music and phone. 2013 is the beginning of the fall of huge greedy cable companies , mark my words . Apple knows how to handle this and satisfy all parties involved.
Ten years ago if anyone would suggest that there will come a day when you could buy single songs from an album , we would think they're crazy cause record companies & artists would never allow that. Look at iTunes and how it paved the way for digital music ;)

$1000 a phone ?!
With your calculation ( contract subsidized prices) then I pay around $1500 A YEAR for my DVR. ;)

No ISP can "regulate" in the legal sense, but they can and do restrict traffic [ based on source and/or charge extra (via caps) for traffic outside their sphere vs that which they sell themselves. [ ]

They should not be allowed to, but while one political party is explicitly against Net Neutrality and the other one refuses to enforce it, the ISPs will always have that control.

Wrong Behshad. Until Apple buys a cable company or an ISP, they won't be any sort of ISP and without an ISP, you're Apple box is a paperweight. Without becoming an ISP, Apple isn't revolutionizing ANYTHING in the TV arena. Comcast, the other cable companies, and the Dish providers own that segment and you'd be crazy to think that they haven't researched and watched how Apple railroaded the record companies into iTunes. What you are missing is that by comparison, record companies were losing CD media sales to illegal online downloads of copyrighted songs. Artists were losing money too. So both artists and record companies had incentive to play ball with Apple. The cable and dish providers aren't losing any money to the web, because in the cable providers are ISP's and to a lesser extent, the dish providers are too. The cable companies (Comcast in particular) own the cable lines through which, most ISP services travel. Phone companies own the rest through DSL type services (AT&T U-Verse, for example). You really think AT&T is going to be willing to play ball with Apple again? There's a reason that they are emphasizing Android and Windows Phones in more ads than iPhones these days. They're not leasing any lines to Apple because they don't have any incentive to do so. They aren't losing any customers by not letting Apple in, but Apple loses an opportunity to twist arms and force their will on media companies who are bigger than Apple and therefore, have more power, money, and egos. Steve Jobs may have been able to get them to play ball but Cook can't get that done. It's not going to happen. No one is drinking Cook's Koolaid. Engineers and VP's have bailed on him.

We shall see. Not all Internet is tied in with cable companies ;)
Apple can afford to buy any of their competition out and move on forward.
Look what they did to the music industry. Once the record companies realized they can still make money , they listened and followed apple.
Look how apple got the cellular network providers to sell their products. 6-7 years ago you would've said " Apple can't succeed with their own cell phone cause they need CELLULAR TOWERS " ;)
Same will happen with TV !

I may be slow but I fail to see why Apple needed a patent for this, other than to bludgeon competition with. Are they really doing anything new here?

Where have you been ?!
Jobs wanted this six years ago. It's finally happening and it will change the TV industry completely. June 2013 !

From the summary, it is hard to see how this is much different than what my Uverse box has done for years, much less my old TiVo - but I suppose we'll learn about it in the inevitabl court case :)

This is what I was talking about in my initial comment. It doesn't seem much different from pre-existing devices and technology, so why are they being granted the patent? I'm concerned we'll see a whole lot more court room action because of this.

Apple will do something that's never been done before : ala carte channels. Don't pay $100 for 300 channels out of which you only enjoy 10. Pay $5 per channel and use those you watch. Or bundle your favorite channels in a customized package and save even more.
They'll make more money on their hardware as usual ;)

Perhaps...but the reason a la carte channels have not been offered is not technical or UI issue Apple can resolve, it is purely monetary; channel suppliers prefer to be able to bundle channels. Apple may have enough money to throw at them to make them forget about it, but it does not sound like a sustainably good investment.

Even then, if Apple started offering a la carte channels, you can bet current cablecos and ISPs would find all sorts of legal-but-shady reasons to "shape" Apple TV traffic, which means Apple would have to run their own infrastructure if they wanted to control/ensure a certain user experience, which history suggests Apple wants above all.

I'm all for somebody giving cable providers a kick in the @ss -- Google Fiber might be a baby step, but still just an embryonic, regional blip -- but for Apple to do it from the device end down would take a *MASSIVE* commitment of resources and money -- at least on the order of Microsoft's initial XBox losses -- for Apple to make even a dent in that arena.

This patent is the precedent to turning the Apple TV into a cable box so that, if Apple can convince the cable and satellite ISP's to allow it onto their network as a cable or satellite provider set top box, you can get Netflix or Hulu through it, in addition to your regular content. But both cable and satellite providers already provide us all with movie and TV content on mobile devices and computers, so they've freed us from being tied to the living room TV and a set top box for content, so they have no incentive to let Apple in. If Apple buys a cable or satellite company (and that is approved by the FCC, which isn't guaranteed), then Apple could do it without having to negotiate a lease to ISP networks. That's about the only way it will happen though.

I'm still waiting for 'a la carte' cable. My perfect line up would include streaming HD content from the following: The Discovery networks, Food network, The Sportsmans Channel, Outdoor Channel, Pursuit Channel, Huntit.TV Network, NBC Sports (Versus), various Fox Sports channels (particularly Fox Soccer), NHL Network, NFL Channel, along with Some form of movie streaming, MLS, NHL and Premier League packages... Beyond that they can keep it all.