Should Apple TV Switch to the iPhone OS?


Should Apple TV switch to the iPhone OS? The Apple TV was introduced in late 2006 but debuted alongside the iPhone at the Macworld 2007 keynote. Since then, the iPhone has become a huge, mainstream success and the Apple TV... well it reamins just a "hobby".

Technically, Apple TV is included under Apple's iTunes + iPod offerings, and it's been referred to as a big iPod for your TV. While low end iPods continue to run their embedded OS, the iPod touch and upcoming iPad run versions of the iPhone OS, Apple TV, by stark contrast, originally used a special version of Mac OS X Tiger. Though it has been updated to 2.x and 3.x over the years (and gotten a price cut to boot!), it remains in a sort of no-mans land, with more functionality than an iPod nano but far less than a proper Mac OS X machine like the Mac Mini.

The set-top box market is nebulous at best, but Apple chose to engage it -- much as it has the equally nebulous tablet market with the iPad, so we wonder if they wouldn't do better engaging it on the same terms -- with the iPhone OS and its 150,000 apps.

There would be problems to be sure. Right away the Apple TV's 1280x720 screen resolution is much greater than the iPhone's 480x320, and wider if shorter than the iPad's 1024x768. Ideally, the Apple TV should go to 1920x1080 to match other, modern display resolutions as well.

Apple is using optional pixel-doubling to let iPhone apps run "full-screen" on the iPad, and these were reportedly blurry and jaggy in early demos. Pixel-quadruplers would likely be even less kind. True resolution independence could be an answer to this, but we'll have to wait and here if Apple addresses that with iPhone 4.0 (perhaps in March).

The bigger problem would be control. The iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad all handle interactions via capacitive multitouch input -- you use your finger on the screen. I don't think there's a single 52" multitouch capacitive HDTV on the market. Apple has patents for Wii-mote style motion controllers that could fake fingers (if not touch) but they also have the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad -- all of which could (and already do via the Apple Remote app) serve as pretty good controllers. Hey, if your house has multiple devices, it could even handle multiple controllers...

So where does that leave us? Right now the Apple TV is an okay bridge to iTunes Store media -- music, movies, and TV content -- but leverages not at all the massive App Store ecosystem. Right now the Apple TV can do the equivalent of the iPod and YouTube apps on the iPhone, but can't show you your Calendar or Contacts, doesn't have Safari or Email, doesn't even have widgets like Stocks or Weather. And it doesn't have 150,000 other apps -- including games! -- that running the iPhone OS could bring it. Really, it's little more than a souped-up iPod classic tethered to your TV.

Sure there would be problems implementing the iPhone OS on the Apple TV, but there would be benefits as well.

So what do you think, should Apple TV be switched to the iPhone OS?

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Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

Should Apple TV Switch to the iPhone OS?


Not following your logic here Rene. I run a couple of Apple TV's and the main issue I have with them is that everything has to be converted to iTunes/AppleTV format before I can view it.
The functionality, in terms of getting content - TV shows, movies, photos - from my computer to my TV, is very simple and reliable. It must be as my wife can use it without complaining!
I don't see Apps being useful or relevant to a "media centre". Maybe games, but you then have the issue of interface. I guess you could use your iPhone as a controller. Personally, I much prefer AppleTV to the xbox interface.

YES. even if we don't get the app store access, I think that the iphone os is more stripped down and efficient. I'm okay if apple just uses the mobile finder, and makes very specific apps themselves for Apple TV, at least for this generation and this hardware, as a proof of concept for a future device.

I've been wondering about this (especially in relation to the possibility that Hulu will start a paid service via the iPad) and don't see the point of making Apple TV entirely compatible with the iPhone OS, for many of the reasons mentioned in the article. Only certain forms of content make sense for the Apple TV, like the iTunes LP format and video content from services like Hulu. I could see an app environment of a kind being supported for the Apple TV, but due to the differences in interfacing, full iPhone OS app compatibility would be more of a problem than anything else.
I suspect that MS will have to figure this issue out as well, with its new smartphone OS, Xbox, Live Marketplace, Zune, etc.

I had a similar thought - basically take the iPad hardware/OS and repurpose it as an AppleTV replacement:
However, I think it'd be a mistake to connect it to the iPhone/iPad App store, instead a new section of the App store should be opened for AppleTV apps/plugins*. Even if there were no app store component, adapting the hardware and underlying OS of the iPad would solve a lot of issues I have w/my AppleTV, and I'd instantly add it to my 'must purchase' list.

  • for one I'd like to see AppleTV have a iTunes-like Visualizer, with ability for user to add plug-ins. great for parties

I have one Apple TV and for what it does, it does the right thing.
The only thing I really miss is the ability to sync from more than one source at the same time: i.e. my itunes library AND my wife's one. That, and the ability to 'just put stuff there' which isn't present in any itunes library. (i.e., renders from imovie or video slideshows from iphoto that are cool to be on the ATV but take innecessary space on my desktop.
Besides this, and I'm for upgrades and re-thinking things, I don't see the iphone o/s necessity...

I'm not so worried about the OS. I doubt I'll be running Quickoffice or Line2 on my Apple TV. I was recently looking at getting an Apple TV until I realized it only did 720p. I'd be much more interested in making it 1080p.
I guess Apple just isn't very concerned with modern screen resolutions- albeit on my phone or on my HDTV, eh? :)

This is something that has been haunting me ever since the first games appeared on the App Store. It could have made for great 'you can play games on it too' functionality, could have made it a sleeper console.
In many respects, Apple seems to get quite myopic in these regards.

I think that by switching to ARM and PowerVR hardware that they would lower their cost. That should be enough motivation for switching hardware.
I agree that they should go to 1080P.

I want an ATV, but I think there are larger issues, and none of them are solved with that os.
Resolution, Open-ness, DVR ability, Tuner, etc
Why buy a "restricted" piece of proprietary hardware without more upside?

Yes, but not for the reasons of turning it into an ipod touch. The AppleTV still runs more of a Leopard-based system than anything, down to using QT7 for playback (allows for 3rd parties to hotwire other codecs, for example). A transition to the iPhone OS is something I'd like to see simply for the sake of a streamlined experience for the underpowered hardware (1GHz mobile x86). On the surface, change nothing, but underneath, use QTX, and slimdown the overhead in general to make it a media-oriented ipod, rather than a stripped down Mac. Effectively update it to Snow Leopard to get some of that new efficiency from a few years of development the Mac inherited from the iPod/iPhone line (QTX is a big one).
In the category of unification of the software, recall this new form of syncing supposedly coming to itunes. The obvious method is wifi, because you shouldn't have to plug in your ipad to USB to get your movies, photos, books and calendars. Which, for the media, the AppleTV already has had for years.
I think the only reason it hasn't been done is because the software overhaul isn't justified since the current software works. Remember the AppleTV came out around the time of the original iPhone, which is before it was called "iPhone OS". Apple has experimented with scaling for different hardware now, so maybe with the next software redesign, the AppleTV will see some of the benefits finally. Probably if/when 2.0 hardware arrives.
I just doubt games will be on it. Without multitouch or real controls, who'd want to think of the AppleTV as a multi-viewer version of the single-viewer iPad. Maybe as a server/hub to many iPads/iPods, but not a client itself. Using iPods as controllers would work... but are there any real purposes for that Apple considers worth pursuing?

No. . the iPhone OS is for touch devices. No wii or other controller is going to provide the same control as you get from an iPod Touch/iPhone/iPad.
And more screen resolutions for Apps? . . Nope, not going to happen.
Now, a AppleTV remote control touch app, that's a possibility.

Interesting new position open at Apple which I think is pertinent to this discussion:
Also, I'd like to clarify that moving the AppleTV to iPad-based hardware/iPhone-based OS is more about streamlining the product line, and reducing costs. The user would never realize that the device was a touchscreen-less iPad, and the if apps were available they'd be AppleTV only apps. But I do think this move would allow lower prices, 1080p output AND fix the numerous performance issues we have with the current crop of devices.

@Paul - You should clarify that content not purchased from the iTunes store needs converted.
@Jorge - It sounds like you would better off not using syncing. Rather stream the content to your ATV from both your Mac and your wifes. Once setup on each Mac it will show up under "Shared Movies", "Shared Podcasts", "Shared TV Shows", etc. on the ATV

@awmyhr: Interesting link. If they're talking about building up systems from such a low level ("low level platform architecture, firmware, core drivers"), then making a new Apple TV that has apps as well as other downloadable content from the iTunes Store and the App Store, compatibility with a multitouch controller (like the new Apple mouse and/or the iPod Touch itself), notifications, etc. would probably constitute a need to build an "iPhone OS." Apple definitely needs to do something with Apple TV to increase its demand and to add to the Apple home entertainment line-up, IMO.

@ruben - You mean like virtually every PC out there ? Like every single Win 7 based tablet forthcoming ? Fanboys seem to come in all shapes, sizes and OS

The one thing I dislike about other things using the OS is that the main usesrs of have to wait for updates to it because of furthering them all at one time. With them being on different time cycles it's going to keep getting worse. Honestly the only reason iPhone users are waiting now is because of the iPad and personally that really sucks. It's coming to a point where we are getting major updates that are really minor once a year.

Indeed, that's what i actually do. But the fact us that, as I tried to explain, there's a lot of stuff that simply I don't want to have on my computer that, in the other hand, makes perfect sense for it to be on the ATV.
I just think that the unit is underdeveloped. Don't get me wrong, I'm quite a happy user, but wouldn't call it 'Best Of Apple' by its current status.
The shame us that, even from a 'user friendly' perspective (not complicating it too much) it could do so much more with little effort...

If you used an iPhone/iPod touch/ipad as the "remote", games would be pretty cool. Especially racing games. You wouldn't even have to look at the phone/ipad/iPod touch, just use it to control.

@Terry Yes, you are quite right. Stuff purchased/rented from the AppleTV or from the iTunes store will play fine. My usage revolves around the occasional rented movie, but much more viewing of 720p HDTV content which typically is .mkv encoded. Also, any existing DVD content needs to be ripped and encoded.
As to the comments about convergence of the OS's, I don't see that as a problem provided it keeps the AppleTV as a media centre rather than a games console. The major benefit compared to having used a Windows Media Centre in the past is its simplicity.

This actually makes no sense. If you understand what the iPhone OS is from a developer perspective there is absolutely no advantage to using it over the current OS X version included on the AppleTV. Now that isn't to say that it couldn't benefit from frameworks in iPhone OS. But those same frameworks are available in OS X. To get them they just need to update to a newer/existing (sort of since it is modified) copy of OS X. Besides that they would just need to open it up for devs. I suppose u could have an argument for doing the whole app store with controlled apps as opposed to the current plugins and .apps system that can be used on the AppleTV (after hacking)

The iPhone and iTouch OS seems to only be a touch screen interface. Having the iPhone OS seems like it would be hard to navigate and wouldn't be much different then the current OS.

@Keith - No it doesn't. It only identifies the capability of your TV as 1080p. All of the iTunes HD content is 720p or 480p

On a somewhat related note, I think Apple should have used ATV 3.0 UI for all of the media (sans eBooks) functions of the iPad. At some point the inconsistency in UI between ATV and pretty much everything else needs to be addressed

The obvious way to do this would be to support something like Intel's WiDi technology to allow you to put the iPad display on your HDTV. Let the Apple TV act as the receiver, and the iPad as the transmitter. Then I can play games, or use apps, or browse to Hulu and watch videos... oh, wait...

After seeing some articles about how the A4 chipset includes the PowerVR SGX GPU (which I and many others suspected), and that the A4 will be in other devices (also makes sense) ... I would guess that, if Apple is going to put the A4 into a future version of Apple TV (also makes sense), then they're going to call the OS for the A4-packing Apple TV an "iPhone OS." At least while it's still in development, as the job posting would suggest. Obviously the A4 is already compatible with the existing iPhone OS for the most part.

Absolutely agree. I could even see this device taking the place of a desktop computer in many households. Lots of people use their computers solely for web browsing & social networking. If Apple put bluetooth in the ATV & developed their own bluetooth touch pad they might have a real winner on their hands. I bought an ATV on a gamble that they will someday realize this potential, though I fear it's fruition is probably some 2-3 years out.

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