What could Apple contribute in 2013? Pulling the strings on the intensely interesting future of Apple TV and iTV
During Apple's Q1 2013 conference call, the Apple Television Rumors That Will Not Die were once again raised with Tim Cook, who smacked them back down hard. However, Cook did announce that they sold 2 million of the current Apple TV, up 60% year-over-year. Cook also dropped all the talking points, including "area of intense interest", "a lot Apple can contribute", and "continue to pull the string".
The Apple TV originally launched in 2007, same year as the iPhone, as a Mac OSX Tiger-based, hard drive-based buy and download box. In late 2010 Apple re-designed and relaunched it as an iOS-based, flash storage-based rent and stream box. In early 2012, Apple bumped up the processor so it could play 1080p video and do AirPlay mirroring.
Given the last, roughly 18-month refresh cycle, it's possible we'll see another update in 2013. Given how long it took Apple to go 1080p, however, and the realities of content and bandwidth, Super HD (4K/2160p) support doesn't seem likely any time soon. Siri support is always a possibility, as is tighter integration with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad, but that might perform well enough on existing hardware. FaceTime video would require new hardware, or at least a new iSight peripheral. Anything else, especially anything more than just another TiVo -- anything that interfaces with, records, replays, or touches cable, satellite, or broadcast signals in a new, compelling way, would require deals with media companies, which have historically been onerous, contentious, and otherwise difficult to secure.
An Apple TV SDK and App Store is always technically possible, but Apple has thus far been content with a partnership strategy, where they strike deals with YouTube, Vimeo, Hulu, major league sports, etc. on a channel-by-channel basis. Releasing an SDK probably wouldn't help strike additional deals with traditionally myopic media companies, but would likely kill any value in the partner strategy, so it's hard to see happening.
As to an Apple iTV, or television panel proper, whether or not Apple has prototypes in the lab, the go-to-market conditions this year don't appear any different than when Steve Jobs discussed how tough it was at D8 back in 2010. The real advantage of a panel is that you get "input zero", or complete control of the boot up/turn on experience. No one has to plug you in or switch to you to get your interface. They start with you. By contrast, right now an Apple TV is typically input 2+, after the television manufacturer, cable or satellite box, and maybe an Xbox, Nintendo, or Playstation box.
I'm sure people at Apple, and those of us who enjoy Apple user experience, would much rather turn on our televisions as see an Apple interface than a Samsung, Sony, LG, ViewSonic, etc. interface, but that want does not a business make.
The same basic questions that face an updated Apple TV also face an iTV. It's still really early in the market for 2160p support, and potentially awkward at 1080p. ("I'm not buying a non-Retina TV from Apple just to have to buy a Retina one next year!") Plugging cable or satellite boxes into input 1, and switching to them for traditional and local programming removes all the advantages of an Apple user experience, or again requires onerous, contentious deals that have proven difficult to obtain.
Putting an Apple TV in an actual iTV panel also makes hardware upgrades less realistic. At $99 a pop, a new Apple TV with a new processor (or whatever) is a no-brainer. When you're talking thousands of dollars, it's a non-starter. (Which is what makes Guy English's decoupled model still so interesting.)
The original Apple television rumors were probably a misread of Apple's prep for the original 27-inch iMac by people more in love with the idea than in touch with the market. Little has changed since then. A much larger, re-purposed version of a Thunderbolt display -- a true Jony Ive crafted panel -- controlled by Siri, set up for FaceTime, connected to all our devices and apps, sounds like fantastic technology, but there doesn't seem to be anything to suggest it's any closer to a product reality.
Hence Tim Cook's "area of intense interest", "a lot Apple can contribute", and "continue to pull the string". Would late 2013 or 2014 be different? Things can and do change quickly in consumer electronics.
What would you like to see in an updated Apple TV or iTV proper? What could Apple do to make one or both a reality in 2013?