Apple TV as an Extension of the iPhone Platform

The Apple TV and the iPhone will (at some point) converge as a single development platform to complement the Mac computer platform.

Or so my theory goes.

Why is that? Apple dropped the Apple TV on consumers in January 2007 as a “hobby.” Since then, it has released several software updates, including a major on-demand kiosk service this past January.

Also during that time, Apple has released two versions of the iPhone, one of its biggest mainstream successes to date. Unlike the Apple TV, though, Apple provided iPhone users with an App Store: a means of extending the device with 3rd-party-developed Apps.

These Apps are developed somewhat differently than those for the Mac desktop. Namely, rather than the keyboard and mouse standards of yore, they are tuned to leverage the device’s alternate input mechanisms (multi-touch display, limited visible real estate, accelerometer, gyroscope, location-aware GPS/WiFi, Bluetooth, camera, and cellular connection) and alternate environments (indoors/outdoors, small physical screen, one-handed interaction, noisy surroundings, varied lighting, etc.).

Because of this shift in development, Apps developed for the iPhone (in my argument) are more in line with Apps that would be useful for the Apple TV (and not desktop Apps). The Apple TV currently ships with an Apple remote control that took some cues from the iPod: it has a 4-direction clickwheel and two buttons (Play and Menu). This limited set of possible interactions generally works well for the TV, but would work terribly for desktop Apps (where users are used to multiple inputs: 104-plus keys on a keyboard and a dual-click, scroll-wheel mouse). Anyone, in fact, who’s had to enter their 32-character WiFi password on the Apple TV unit using the directional clicker and Play button knows such interaction is painful; what is easy on the computer desktop is very difficult six feet away from the screen with limited input controls.

Apple clearly knows this.

To date, Apple’s software updates have added very few Apps to the Apple TV. Those they do provide are primarily restricted to “browsing” functions (i.e. tasks that involve simple directional scrolling and a couple clicks). Aside from browsing/playing video content, you can browse/play music, photos, and podcasts. In the few cases where the user needs to do more than browse or play, “keyboard entry” is limited to activities such as entering search terms for podcasts or supplying a username and password. Why? Because moving across a virtual, on-screen keyboard one click at a time with the Apple remote is time-consuming, painful, and so not “Apple-like.”

However, Apple has begun to tie the iPhone and Apple TV together already to simplify such a complex interaction. By releasing the “Remote” Application on the iTunes App Store at launch, Apple now provides Apple TV users an alternate means of accessing a virtual keyboard: rather than click with the Apple Remote, users can instead access the iPhone’s virtual keyboard (far from perfect, but light years better than the Apple TV’s beast). Aside from just keyboard entry, the “Remote” App also provides alternate menu access to controlling the selection and playback of video and audio content on the TV.

With one tiny App, Apple unveiled a powerful connection between the two non-Mac devices. Suddenly, users have two devices that stand tall on their own, but, by joining together, add up to be greater than their sum. The result? Giant, hi-def HDTVs as the display; Web-connected computer capable of handling concurrent App tasks and video signal decoding; a remote that has a multi-touch display, accelerometer, gyroscope, camera, and cellular connection; and (maybe most importantly) a compact format that fits well in a home living room entertainment center.

Because of this possibility, I would predict Apple begins to do 2 things:

  1. allow developers to create rich, Internet-connected, iPhone-controllable Apps for the Apple TV using an extension of the iPhone SDK, and
  2. distribute Apps to the Apple TV using the iPhone App Store (potentially with a filter for TV-only Apps).

So, aside from creating a cool home entertainment hydra, why would Apple enable the iPhone SDK for development of Apple TV Applications? I would posit several reasons:

  • Name:
    I’ll lead with my weakest argument: the iTunes App Store is called the iTunes App Store, not the iPhone App Store. This would seem to suggest Apple is keeping the door open to distribute Apps to platforms beyond the iPhone and iPod Touch.
  • Greed:
    $30 million was earned in the first month of the App Store’s release, with $70 million more the following month. Six million total Apple TV units are predicted to be in homes by end of 2008 compared to the 12 million iPhones in the market now. This would suggest a theoretical $25 million/month for the yet-to-be-supported Apple TV unit. Do I think that’s unrealistic? Sure. But even 1/10th of that figure would suggest an attractive revenue stream.
  • Development Environment:
    Both Mac and iPhone development use Apple’s Xcode. And while the iPhone uses it’s own OS, the Apple TV uses a customized OS X. Apple TV App development could leverage UI controls and the simplified focus of the iPhone while having access to OS X’s amazing developer palette.
  • Patent Mining:
    Apple filed a patent two years ago suggesting some big changes to the product: the Apple TV as a lightweight widget/application platform. The thinking therein appears to suggest that app-like widgets could enhance a user’s viewing experience (whether by facilitating live chat with other viewers, providing contextual information against the current feature ala VH1’s Popup Video, etc.), and describes a number of possible widgets: Weather, Stocks, World Clock, Sports, and Video Chat.

Because of these points, I believe there’s a strong chance Apple will further connect the iPhone and Apple TV. Or, Apple could replace the Apple TV entirely, and come out with a killer Mac Mini/Apple TV-hybrid unit. One generally never knows what Steve Jobs has up his sleeve until his Tuesday announcements…

(Side note: this isn’t a new idea… several more-informed folks have suggested similar ideas in the past. AppleInsider proposed the Apple TV as a “casual gaming” device, and The Unofficial Apple Weblog has been clamoring for Apple TV Apps for some time. Update: The Inquisitr just proposed a similar call for an Apple TV App Store.)



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