It’s been many years since Steve Jobs famously told biographer Walter Isaacson that he’d “cracked TV” – an integrated television set with “the simplest user interface you could possibly imagine.” That idea seemingly went nowhere, with plans for a full TV set reportedly abandoned back in 2014.
So far, then, Apple’s offering in the TV space has been a rather modest one: the venerable ‘black puck’ that is the Apple TV box. The company keeps updating it, of course. Movie rentals were a big deal for some, Photostream for others. But for most, the last really dramatic change was the addition of AirPlay. Since then, improvements have been evolutionary rather than revolutionary.
All that looked set to change next month, with Apple initially expected to launch the next best thing to a full television set: significantly upgraded hardware coupled to a new streaming TV service. The complete package would undoubtedly have proven a winner. But with the streaming service now delayed until sometime next year, will a revamped box alone be enough to significantly boost sales, or will most be holding out until the Internet TV service is launched … ?
For existing Apple TV users, the new hardware is going to look appealing. A multitouch remote – perhaps with Force Touch – would substantially increase the usability of the device. Likewise, the combination of rumored Siri support and the proactive search feature of iOS 9 should address the frustration experienced when trying to find content.
But for existing users, price may be key. Quite a few Apple TV owners seem to view it as a ‘nice to have’ rather than something central to the TV experience. Paying $69 for something that’s a nice extra but not essential is one thing. But a touchscreen remote isn’t going to be cheap: I’d be surprised if the new box comes in at less than $149, perhaps $199. That, for many, will fall well outside ‘handy extra’ pricing.
For those who haven’t yet bought an Apple TV box, will the expected new features tip the balance? An improved user interface will mean a lot less to someone who hasn’t yet used the existing one. Sure, having the box run something closer to full-blown iOS make it an easier transition, but people already expect Apple kit to be easy to use, so this isn’t likely to be a big draw.
One should never underestimate pure gadget appeal, of course. A multitouch remote coupled to Siri certainly has that. Gadget appeal is the primary reason many upgrade their iPhones every year or two. But an iPhone is something you use many times throughout the day; how much time do you spend using a TV remote – even a hi-tech one – once you’ve selected your movie or TV show?
So yes, it will definitely help sell the new box, but won’t, I think, be a massive draw.
Which brings us to apps. Opening up the platform to third-party developers could be a big deal – potentially adding a great deal of exciting new functionality to the device.
However, as Mark Gurman cautioned in his roundup of everything we’re expecting, we shouldn’t get too carried away here.
We are told that Apple’s focus on Apple TV App Store apps has been video-centric applications, which would allow media companies to release new channels on the Apple TV on their own schedule
In other words, the majority of the new ‘apps’ may turn out to be nothing more than new TV channels.
But that still leaves a minority of apps that will go further than this. Could these drive dramatic new interest in Apple TV?
I can immediately think of a few apps that might prove extremely appealing to some. There are plenty of Plex fans out there, for example. Give them a Plex app on their Apple TV, and the ability to pull in content from a network drive, and I suspect you’d have an admittedly limited number of people queuing up to buy it on day one.
Broadening appeal somewhat, Safari strikes me as a good bet. Sure, you probably don’t want to browse a ton of web content on your TV, but with a touchscreen remote acting as a touchpad, it wouldn’t be too painful an experience to quickly check a few things. Again, you can AirPlay, but then you might as well do the browsing direct on your iPhone or iPad – having a native browser on the Apple TV box would be a lot more convenient if you’re already watching TV.
A relatively small subset of native apps could, I think, bring a bunch of new owners on board. But if Apple is hoping for a really significant boost to sales in the absence of its streaming TV service, I think there’s only one category of apps that could deliver it: games.
We’re expecting the elderly single-core A5 in existing models to be replaced with a dual-core variant of the A8 chip found in the iPhone 6. Couple that to a RAM boost to either 1GB or 2GB, and you have a device capable of running a lot of modern games.
Now, you could argue that real game enthusiasts buy dedicated consoles, and that not even an A8-powered Apple TV could compete with those – and I’d agree with you. Hardcore gamers will stick to their Xbox One or PS4.
You could also argue that it’s already possible for casual gamers to play iOS games via their Apple TV, using AirPlay. There I’ll agree to an extent: it’s true for a limited number of games, and with a degree of lag that is acceptable for some, and not for others. But it’s a hassle even to identify compatible games. This isn’t, I think, mainstream behavior.
But playing native games on a revamped Apple TV could be. There are a great many people who aren’t sufficiently into games to lay out the big bucks for a dedicated games console and expensive games, but would still enjoy playing games on their TV if it were made sufficiently easy and affordable. An Apple TV box priced at $150-200, coupled to the low cost of most iOS games, is in my view a pretty compelling sell.
So my answer to the question I posed in the headline is … it depends. If Apple’s idea of apps is mostly just new TV channels, then no, I don’t think the new Apple TV box will really take off until the streaming TV service is launched. But if Apple gets enough games developers on board, and makes a big splash of the gaming potential of the device, I think this could be the Apple TV box that generates mass-market consumer appeal.
As ever, let us know your views in the comments.
Concept image: Martin Hajek