As of Friday, we're living in the fourth-generation Apple TV era. Apple's famous "hobby" of the past eight years might finally be something more than that, thanks to a Siri-enabled remote, support for third-party apps, and more. As this moment, it's worth considering how Apple TV got to this point—and where it might go from here.
Hot box, black box
Released in 2007 just a few months before the original iPhone, the first-generation Apple TV was basically a tiny Mac. It ran a modified version of OS X 10.4 (Tiger), and it ran hot—like, almost hot-plate hot. In those days, Apple was in a precarious place: The company wanted to make a bunch of different consumer-electronics devices that weren't computers, exactly, but its options were limited. Famously, the iPhone was built on a stripped-down OS X core, but the iPod used its own custom operating system, and the first-generation Apple TV was stuck essentially running Front Row on underpowered Mac hardware.
By 2010, however, things had changed. The iPhone was more mature and the iPad had arrived on the scene, making iOS the perfect operating system to bring to the Apple TV.
The second- and third-generation Apple TV models didn't feature spinning hard drives or act as accidental sandwich warmers. They were teensy iOS devices instead of Macs, and they worked pretty well. But they were both literally and figuratively black boxes—though the iOS app ecosystem was flourishing, the Apple TV's "apps" were quite limited in scope and controlled entirely by Apple.
The box opens
Five years later, this new box finally brings the power of the App Store to Apple TV. And having spent some time using one of the new Apple TV units, it's clear that Friday was the start of the story, not the triumphant finish. This is a 1.0 take on an entirely new, open Apple TV—and it's got many gaps and room for improvement.
Over the next weeks and months, we'll all learn—Apple, developers, and users alike—what the strengths and weaknesses of this device are. We'll discover which apps, rushed out hastily to capitalize on the opening day of a new App Store, are actually loved and used—and which ones turn out in hindsight to have been a bad idea. Apple will hear from developers (and users) about what features are missing from the current implementation of third-party apps on tvOS, and make adjustments accordingly.
Of course, tvOS itself is still a work in progress. There's no new iOS Remote app that adds easy text input and emulates the hardware remote. I appreciate the fact that I was able to link my Apple TV to my Apple ID via my iPhone, but I still had to re-enter all my service user names and passwords—which wasn't any fun, and it's an area that could benefit from extra attention. Additionally, iCloud Photo Library isn't supported beyond your shared albums, and that's not cool.
Beyond filling the gaps, it's interesting to consider where Apple might add to the Apple TV now that this new platform is here. Has Microsoft's struggle with the Kinect peripheral on the XBox One killed the idea that a video sensor belongs in the living room? Because I think Apple might have a winner with an add-on FaceTime camera that could perch on your TV or a shelf and let you do video chats.
A future version would also need to support 4K video, of course. And I'd like a Find My Friends app that turns my TV into the Marauder's Map (or Mrs. Weasley's clock) from "Harry Potter."
And then there's the much-rumored Apple video service, which would let cord-cutters subscribe to various packages of TV programming right on the device. It's a feature that has the potential to drive much more use of the Apple TV, which is probably why Apple really, really wanted to announce that service alongside the device itself. Alas, media companies are tough negotiators. So we'll wait.
Let's also not forget that the old third-generation Apple TV is still on Apple's website, and it will need to go away at some point, replaced by a (relatively) low-cost device that offers more of the fourth-generation Apple TV's features.
Warning signs and challenges
Not all is rosy in the land of the Apple TV: There are a whole lot of dangers out there, too. TVs themselves are getting smarter, reducing the need for third-party boxes like the Apple TV. These days, many ship with built-in support for Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, and other services, and if all you really want to do is watch Netflix, you don't really need to spend another $149.
Apple TV is the only way you can watch content from iTunes, listen to Apple Music, or use AirPlay, but those are not features that will drive Apple TV to an ever-wider audience.
The addition of games and other apps gives Apple TV a way to differentiate itself from what's built into your television. But the company also has to compete with rival streaming boxes and other game consoles that offer apps, games, and streaming features.
The fourth-generation Apple TV currently resides in both price and power at a midpoint between a full-blown game console and cheaper streaming box. But even if the Amazon Fire Stick doesn't have the power of an A8 processor, you can still play Crossy Road on it, just like the Apple TV. In the end, the strength of Apple's app catalog will probably need to be the difference between Apple TV and its competition.
Finally, there's the biggest challenge for Apple TV, and that's the television itself. A whole generation is growing up watching YouTube on their phones and tablets and laptops rather than on a big television set. Will the market for the television set itself wane?
My guess is no—big screens will always have their place—but we are becoming a culture of video consumers who expect to transfer what we're watching between the small screen and big with ease. And in the end, that might be the most important barometer of success for the Apple TV: Can it do a good job of bridging the gap between our iPhones and iPads and our television sets? Will we want to run apps on the Apple TV, or will we just want to use our iPhones to play things back on the TV?
It's too early to tell how this will all play out: It's the first week of what's essentially a 1.0 product. But after five years inside the black box, it's exciting to see where Apple, developers, and users take the Apple TV next.
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