The case for the Apple TV... dongle

Fake Apple TV Stick Concept
Fake Apple TV Stick Concept (Image credit: Rene Ritchie / iMore)

Currently, Apple's only answer to television is a starting at $179 box that runs apps and plays up to 4K HDR. But what if there was something else? Something smaller that, instead of sitting beside any tv, could plug right into the back. Something that gave you all the power of Apple's TV app, but could go with you in a pocket… or maybe was already in your pocket or bag?

I've been thinking about this for the last couple years but now it looks like the next couple of years could make it a reality.

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Aaron Tilley and Jessica Toonkel, writing for The Information just yesterday:

To get more viewers for its upcoming TV streaming service, Apple has contemplated going downmarket on its TV hardware.The tech giant has had internal discussions about introducing a low-priced streaming "dongle" that people could plug into the back of their TV sets, similar to Amazon's Fire Stick or Google's Chromecast, people familiar with the project said. The dongle could make Apple's upcoming video streaming service—which will only be available on Apple devices such as the Apple TV, iPhones and iPads—more widely available. The service will be rolled out globally next year. Shows made originally for Apple will be free on the service.

Funnily enough, just like I started imagining iPhone X back in 2015, I started imaging the Apple TV "dongle" back in 2016.

Making an Apple TV to GO:

The gist was and remains this: It's hard not to look at the Google Chromecast and wonder if Apple could make something like it. Don't get me wrong: I love the Apple TV. 4K HDR and all the music, tv, movies, and everything else at the sound of Siri or click of a controller, it's exactly what I want in my house today. But it's not something I can easily put in my pocket and travel with — be it between cities or simply between friends.

In the decade or so since we've gone from the Palm Tree 680 to the iPhone X, the local cable company really isn't providing a better box, and certainly not a better interface than it did back in the day of CRTs. Literally all the innovation in the industry is happening from the outside. From the likes of TiVo, Roku, and yes, Amazon, Google, and Apple.

But Apple is, again, currently bound to that box. And that means, unless you put the current box in every room in your house and office, and take one with you everywhere you travel, you may very well be stuck with those old, outdated interfaces. Or many interfaces.

One of the best things about CarPlay, Apple's automotive infotainment system, is that it lets your device and content take over the interface of any car that supports it — and eliminates the confusion historically associated with everything from upgrades to rentals. AirPlay does something similar for any television. But it needs that Apple TV box to do it.

What if it didn't? What if, like Google's Chromecast or Amazon's Fire dongle — tiny devices that plugs into any HDTV with HDMI, and lets you stream any of your content, and much of the internet's content, through them, Apple had an Apple TV Go, or Express, or mini, or whatever, that would do exactly the same. But with all your Apple content along with the rest of the internet stuff.

The Apple TV Streaming Stick

The easy way to do it would be to make it a dumb dongle. A small, presumably cheap piece of hardware that connects over AirPlay and lets you stream anything your iPhone, iPad, or Mac is capable of streaming right to your TV.

The interface would stay on your iOS or macOS device, but all the content would push over point-to-point Wi-Fi, through the dongle, and show up on the big screen.

The only downside is that, like with anything AirPlay, it requires a persistent connection to your iPhone, iPad, or Mac, and that limits what else you can do while you're AirPlaying.

The Apple TV mini

A more sophisticated way to do it would be to embed the Apple TV interface on the dongle. It would be a more expensive solution, even with only enough local storage to allow streaming, not local content, but to buffer those streams to ensure steady, stable playback. But it would also be far more independent.

Apple has shown that it can make incredibly small, incredibly dense computational objects — there's that term again — with AirPods and Apple Pencil, so making an incredibly small, incredibly capable streaming stick is certainly in its core competences.

And a hybrid approach, something that streams content directly from the internet but also lets you stream content from your iPhone, iPad, and Mac, including games that let you use your iPhone or iPad as a controller, could be incredibly compelling.

Even if expensive by current streaming stick standards — currently dongles retail for between 25 and 50 dollars — it could be cheap enough by Apple standards to substantially increase living room and every room penetration.

Which would be great, considering Apple has billions of dollars in television content coming next year.

Sure, a billion iOS devices with is certainly a big enough market to support it — or, rather, Apple Television as a value add is certainly a good way to support a billion iOS devices and more to come.

But it could add even more value for that combination. Maybe enough to get people who don't have an iOS device but have a really high affinity for Jennifer Aniston, J.J. Abrams, Oprah, or any of the other talent Apple has signed, to try it out. To be a next generation halo device, not for the pocket but for the living room.

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Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.