iPad accomplished, can Apple reinvent TV – and gaming?

Even as the queues for the international iPad launch quickly dissipated and punters retired to their lounge rooms for a weekend play rumours hitting the Web now suggest the next product in Apple’s reinvention timeline could be the Apple TV. But can Apple’s most awkwardly out-of-date product help the company reinvent TV?

Although I appreciate the value of being able to watch iTunes videos and streaming slide shows on the TV I’ve been a longtime critic of Apple TV as a lounge-room solution. It’s too narrowly focused; too inflexible; too singularly designed to suck money out of our wallets in the form of high-priced rentals here that can easily lead unsuspecting users to broadband bill purgatory.

I spelled out my objections in great detail here late last year and was contacted by Apple for clarification of the device’s real purpose (let’s call it ‘re-education’) as a response. But here we are six months later and Apple has done nothing to improve the four-year-old Apple TV in the interim. Apple TV barely even rates a mention at the local Apple Store and it’s about the company’s only consumer product not to feature on the front page of its online Apple Store.

It plays iTunes movies fine but Apple TV has fallen far behind the curve as competitors rush to bring video-on-demand solutions to market.

Meanwhile the market has become flooded with streaming-media solutions. Sony TiVo Boxee Google and others are on the warpath to streaming media Nirvana. Even TVs are starting to ship with built-in Ethernet ports and access to libraries of streaming content; given this is there really incentive to shell out $329 for a device whose sole differentiating factor is its access to iTunes content? Apple TV doesn’t record TV; doesn’t offer many options in terms of streaming video; doesn’t for the technically discerning out there offer 1080p output; doesn’t doesn’t doesn’t.

Apple TV is long overdue for an extreme makeover – and Apple knows this. It has known this for a while actually but one suspects it has been holding back to watch how the market develops and to see where it can add value in the way only Apple does.

It’s nice then to see a bit of supposedly-leaked detail around the apparent successor to the current device. We hear from Appleinsider for example that the new device will be powered by Apple’s A4 CPU support 1080p HD video include just 16GB of RAM and potentially support applications from the App Store.

It will in short be to the iPad what the iPod Shuffle is to the iPod touch and the Mac mini is to the iMac: a thinner dedicated display-less device designed to suit a specific need – in this case streaming media to the TV. Yet if the device includes just 16GB of storage as rumoured it will be the biggest sign yet that the company is doing away with the local storage model altogether – pushing music and videos into the cloud in a strategy that became far clearer after Apple’s recent purchase of streaming music site Lala.com.

With the new Apple TV installed – or perhaps licensed into third-party TVs as a defensive move against Google’s apparent plans to corner the OEM market with its Android-based platform – you’d have instant access to your entire music and video library from your lounge-room couch. Syncing content to the Apple TV will be a thing of the past and 2011 will be the year when TV faces its toughest challenge as alternative content delivery hits the mainstream. Future TV will be available anywhere on any device at any time – and the cloud will be this model’s enabler.

But are consumers ready for this? There is a certain affection for owning music and movies and the idea of needing to be online to listen to our own collections isn’t going to sit well with many people. And there will realistically be some issues if Apple requires us to push videos into the cloud as well: I know today’s streaming media is oh-so-efficient but how much bandwidth will you consume downloading your own copy of Shrek 3 to play for the kids for the 42nd time? Sure caching could ease this but 16GB of local storage is hardly adequate for that.

There will be benefits of course: if iTunes.com is indeed launched as expected it would bring the idea of on-demand access to content – anywhere at any time – into the mainstream. Because even though it has been successfully executed elsewhere new technology concepts don’t really seem to take root in the public consciousness until Apple does them. Like it or hate it that’s the way things operate these days.

Two other aspects of the mooted Apple TV offer great promise. The first is its support for applications which have been the device’s Achilles heel in the past. Users like being able to access the content they want and shoehorned solutions from the US – where streaming TV is ubiquitous thanks to the likes of Hulu.com – don’t really cut it. If I have an Apple TV plugged into my TV I need to be able to set it up to access catchup TV from the major Australian networks and services or it’s of no use to me.

Apple has built an increasingly robust and feature-filled application platform with its iPhone; transferred it to a more-usable form factor with the iPad; and can now bring the same platform straight to the lounge room with an App Store-enabled Apple TV running iPhone OS 4.0. And since TVs don’t have touch remote it’s not hard to guess that Apple would allow the iPad iPhone or iPod touch to be used as a wireless interactive remote.

Heck the ability to load up games and use my iPhone as a
motion-sensitive controller opens tantalising possibilities. Indeed this device could easily be Apple’s long-elusive springboard into lounge-room gaming; it would be dead-easy for the company to offer a Bluetooth iJoyStick to do the job properly. It’s no PS3 but the performance of iPad games is nothing to sneeze at.

The second notable aspect to Apple TV is its price. The current model is simply far too expensive for what it does particularly given the rapid reduction in price of dedicated PVRs offering far more features. And since most of the money to come from these devices lies in the promise of recurring revenues from downloadable content it makes sense to turn the device itself into a disposable item that could be sold in boxes from your local Coles.

I’d say even $US99 – the suggested price which will translate into probably $159 locally – is a bit high; but it’s a definite start. As APC online editor Dan Warne suggested recently Apple could make the device that much more appealing by bundling $99 worth of iTunes vouchers – sealing Apple TV’s fate as a razors-and-blades delivery model.

Of course the challenge facing Apple is to move at the right time. Real success with Apple TV would require the device’s functionality to be available in TVs straight off the shop floor but manufacturers are already stitching up agreements with other streaming content providers and will want to see how those go before locking themselves into Apple’s notoriously-strict terms of service.

That all said the pieces of the puzzles are coming together in promising ways. Expect an Apple TV refresh to be on the shelves before Christmas. The world is quickly moving beyond the old record-and-play TV model; if Apple plays its cards right it could easily give the entire content and gaming industry a kick in the bum and bring consumers a fresh new lounge-room option executed with Apple’s typical shiny seamless lust-worthy pizazz.

What do you think of the rumoured new Apple TV design? Would it convince you to upgrade from your current model? Or jump into the market for the first time?