Fifteen years on, many in the Apple space are looking back at the announcement of the original iPhone with fondness; remaining in awe of what the product ultimately went on to be. That's unsurprising since, arguably, there have been few product unveilings as significant, and certainly none more important, to Apple.
Gaining less attention, however, is the Apple TV that was officially debuted alongside Apple's revolutionary phone. Though the original Apple TV, then called iTV, was previewed at Apple's September 2006 event, it actually shared stage time with the iPhone in January 2007 for its proper unveiling before shipping a couple of months later.
A decade and a half later, it's fun to look at how much the Apple TV has, or hasn't, changed and speculate about what lies in its future.
A DVD player for the Internet age
In re-watching both the Apple TV sneak peek and official introduction, I was struck by how much Apple got right about the future of television. There was a strong emphasis on getting your digital media onto your big-screen TV wirelessly, the removal of complexity, and the presentation of your media in a beautiful way — and no mention of cable providers.
"Apple TV is like a DVD player for the Internet age—providing an easy and fun way to play all your favorite iTunes content from your PC or Mac on your widescreen TV," said Philip Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of Worldwide Product Marketing. "Apple TV allows you to wirelessly play your content from your PCs or Macs using your existing WiFi network, as well as the newest and fastest version of WiFi—802.11n."
The reliance on your Mac or PC's iTunes library didn't last too long as the second-gen Apple TV from 2010 gave users direct access to the iTunes store for renting and downloading content. It also added apps like Netflix, YouTube, and Flickr. That 2010 model is really the birth of Apple TV as we know it today. The rise of streaming followed and when tvOS and the App Store arrived on the 2015 3rd-gen model, we had our last real Apple TV revolution.
It's been 6 years since our last real Apple TV revolution.
The specs have improved over time since then, sure, and software features have come and gone too. The best Apple TV of today can stream in 4K with high frame rate HDR and Dolby Atmos audio, uses speedy Wi-Fi 6, and packs in an A12 Bionic processor. tvOS 15 is about as polished as the OS is going to get at this point, too. But what are the next steps for Apple TV in 2022 and beyond? How does Apple break it out of its current form and get it into more homes? Does it even want to?
Dongle or TV set
Rumors are nothing new in the Apple world, but a couple about Apple TV have persisted for years. The first is that Apple is, or was, pursuing a cheaper Apple TV dongle, similar in spirit to an Amazon Fire TV Stick.
Shrinking down the current Apple TV could certainly be achieved with enough engineering, though there would be many trade-offs in order to get there. Recent reports state Apple canned the idea, and I think it was right to do so as I wrote back in September:
Apple doesn't need to make low-cost Apple TV dongles because they already exist — they just aren't made by Apple.
If you think about the things Apple would have sacrificed to get to an Apple TV dongle in the sub-$50 or even sub-$100 market while maintaining a shred of margin — things like HDR, Dolby Atmos, the ability to be HomeKit hub, enough power to support intensive Apple Arcade games, and the fancy new Siri Remote — the end product is probably not too far removed from streaming devices from Roku, Amazon, and others.
When it can make an Apple TV app for those devices, why would it bother to compete on low-margin hardware?
The other persistent Apple TV rumor is that Apple would make its own big-screen TV set, something I think would be a great idea. Think about it: Apple already has experience making gorgeous displays — just look at its iMac and Pro Display XDR products — and its industrial design sensibilities are second to none. It could easily craft a product worthy of prime placement in your living room if it wanted to.
Apple could easily craft a product worthy of prime placement in your living room.
Its tvOS UI trumps basically all other TV interfaces and its App Store reach allows it to get the most popular apps on the big screen. Plus, Apple has shown it is not averse to receiving monthly payments for its most expensive products, with the iPhone Upgrade Program and Apple Card installment plans already blazing that trail.
If it's a matter of margin, Apple could undoubtedly charge more than comparable TV sets for its offering and Apple fans would still buy it. With tvOS and Siri built-in, HomeKit hub functionality, direct access to services like Apple Fitness+ and Apple Arcade, Apple can add value to its offering that others can't in order to justify the price.
Smart home and gaming
Though Apple undoubtedly has a full-blown Apple TV set in its labs, dreams of it ever launching one may end up being just that. That's not to say Apple can't improve the Apple TV experience without reinventing the hardware itself, though.
One such area for improvement is within the smart home. It was notable that in October 2021 Apple created a new "TV & Home" section of its website, which serves to highlight the best of Apple TV, HomePod, Apple TV+, and HomeKit, suggesting some kind of collective vision for Apple's home products. Perhaps we'll learn more about that vision at WWDC in the summer.
Apple could improve the Apple TV experience without reinventing the hardware.
The other area of interest for Apple is gaming. Apple has never excelled at gaming, though its iOS devices offer arguably the largest gaming platform in the world. It has most recently dipped its toe in the gaming waters with Apple Arcade. These Arcade games are available on Apple TV, and there are some great Bluetooth controllers for Apple TV, but Apple has never really put its full weight behind gaming.
A beefed up Apple TV with the power of its newest silicon would be an absolute gaming behemoth in terms of raw power, though, and could help to convince more AAA game creators to develop for the platform. Rumors suggest an Apple AR/VR headset is on the horizon for 2022, which will bring with it gaming implications which may see Apple revisit its offerings across the board.
No longer a hobby
If the Apple TV is no longer a hobby project, as Tim Cook said in 2014, then the company needs to step up its efforts. As my primary way of viewing television, I'm invested in the success of Apple TV but there's only so far a little HDMI-connected box can go. I think we're approaching the end of that runway and it's time to re-evaluate the Apple TV at a fundamental level.