Monday, May 6, 2013

What AppleTV could be

People have been hoping for an App Store for AppleTV for a while. Every year before WWDC, we hear rumors of what might be happening on that platform.

I want to talk about what it could be.

Rumors about a Apple TV set talk about an app store for the platform. But if the new TV won't connect to your existing DVD player or cable box, nobody's going to buy it. You have to address this problem.

Home entertainment systems are terribly broken right now. Every new device you connect brings with it another remote control. Each one looks about the same; a number pad, some arrows, and a host of buttons like "Audio" and "Info" that nobody can really explain. They all connect to a custom on-screen menu, which never looks great and is different from every other device connected to the TV. It's a mess of inconsistency.

Imagine a new AppleTV. It has the same functionality as the current AppleTV, but on the back are a series of HDMI input ports. When you plug in your DVD player, a new "app" shows up on the AppleTV main menu for the DVD player. You open the DVD player app, and you can control the entire DVD player right from that app, using the same AppleTV remote you were already using. You plug in your Wii U, a "Wii" app shows up on the menu that lets the Wii interface takes over the full screen. There you are, playing your Wii on your AppleTV.

The AppleTV home screen becomes the TV's input selector. Instead of repeatedly pressing the "TV/Video" button on your remote, you just choose the input right on the AppleTV home screen. It's graphical and friendly, and your grandma can use it.

In order for this to work, the AppleTV would need to know what to display for each input source; each device needs a corresponding AppleTV app. For some devices (e.g. game consoles), this app would do little more than provide a home screen icon, and display full-screen video from the device. For other devices (e.g. DVD players), the app would implement two-way functionality with the device to allow the user to control it with the AppleTV app. Conveniently, the HDMI spec already includes a Consumer Electronics Control ("CEC") connection that allows for two-way communication; no additional cables needed.

When a new device is connected, the AppleTV would need to query the device to find out which app to install. Perhaps the device could return an App ID that the TV would install, or perhaps it would look things up by device model, just like how OS X installs printer drivers automatically on demand.

Even without a built-in App Store, if Apple could save me from the remote control explosion I have right now, I'd buy it. This would make the AppleTV the hub of the family room electronics setup. A built-in app store would only make it that much more popular, and I think that's coming too. Imagine, the next Nintendo or Sega could simply ship dedicated controllers that connect via Bluetooth, and have no other hardware costs. You could build an entire platform on AppleTV.

Apple has an opportunity to build an entirely new platform. I hope that's what they're doing.


Of course, you could do most of this with a set-top box as well; it doesn't need to be a full TV set. You'd just have to increase the size of the box a bit to handle the various inputs. But you'd still have to deal with the TV's input switching mechanism, volume control, etc; I just don't think it would have the same appeal.

Tell me what you think; I'm  @bjhomer on Twitter