What Apple TV Could Learn From The iPhone

by Hadley Stern May 07, 2009

The iPhone and the Apple TV share many things in common except for one big thing. The iPhone is a roaring success, reaching mainstream usage and a darling of the press. The Apple TV, on the other hand, is a resounding dud. It has some rabid fans, but most of those folks are Apple-heads to begin with and would be inclined to purchase and love anything put out by Apple whether it be a coffee machine, portable music player, or Apple TV.

The question is front of us is whether we can look at what Apple has done with the iPhone as inspiration for rebooting the Apple TV and making it the success it should be. Let us look at some specifics:

Make it (sort of) Open

The iPhone has really taken off with the SDK. The SDK has brought thousands of applications. These thousands of applications are useful for end-users, have created a rabid and passionate development community and has created new business models and opportunities.

The Apple TV, on the other hand, is literally and figuratively a closed-box. This is a shame. Like the iPhone there is a community (albeit much much smaller) that has hacked the Apple TV, making it able to do things like install Boxee, connect to network volumes directly, etc. Like the iPhone the Apple TV is based on OS X and like the iPhone Apple has in front of it a tremendous opportunity to make the Apple TV available to developers everywhere.

Think of the possibilities if Apple opened up the Apple TV with a similar iPhone like SDK. Developers could write their own applications extending the Apple TV into areas we haven't even thought of. Yes we would have a few iFart like apps along the way but we would also have some Shazams. It would be worth it.

Step One for Apple? Make the Apple TV open to developers and make it the development platform for media center enthusiasts everywhere.


The iPhone without ATT would be a brick in Steve Jobs pocket (ok, that sound a little weird, but you get the point). Apple knew it had no choice but to partner in order to release the iPhone. The same holds true for the Apple TV. As a TV subscriber I have to have a video box of some sort to interpret my TV signals. These boxes now typically include DVR like functions, and, more disturbingly for Apple TV, Video of Demand and the ability to act as an interface for my digital music and photography collection.

In this model the Apple TV is an add-on instead of being an essential like the iPhone. It is almost like Apple would release the iPhone with no cell reception as an adjunct to a regular mobile phone (put another way if Apple approached the mobile space the way it is approaching the living room they would have just released the iPod Touch).

Apple needs to partner with a major cable or satellite carrier, or all of them, to offer the Apple TV as an option for subscribers in place of the stock set-top box we all get. Or do what Tivo does and make the damn thing work as a set-top box. Of course, this would require some additional functionality, which leads us to the next point.

Make it a true Media Center box

Right now there are a number of options to record TV to view later. Tivo most notably is a market leader here. Having an Apple TV without DVR-like features is dumb. Apple needs to either build in the ability to do all the basics of time-shifting TV. Yes this will put it in competition with the iTunes downloads for TV shows, etc which leads us to option b of all this.

Make it the way to consume the new modes of TV distribution

Whether it is Hulu, NetFlix, or any other number of ways to view media online the shift from broadcast to anycasting is already happening. The question is whether Apple wants to be a serious contender. Getting away with not offering subscriptions may work in the online music space (although that still surprises me) but in the video space it will not work. Apple either needs to offer a Hulu-like experience or offer an application on the Apple TV that allows people to consume subscription and free content.

The business model and market opportunities for the living room continue to evolve. For whatever reason the Apple TV is stuck in the past. It is time for Apple to shake things up. The good news is that is has (no surprise here!) the best UI I've ever used for this type of device. The bad news is that is is missing out on functionality that users have to come to expect for this type of product.

What do you think? What other ideas do you have for the Apple TV?


  • Kash - Sorry missed you saying that in the earlier post. And I agree a big problem is too many boxes under the TV (and Harmony One is great). Perhaps an Apple Universal remote would be interesting.

    Robo - I don’t see that the AppleTV has to have a cablecard. Personally - a free-to-air DVR plus “extra” content from some cable channels (via iTunes) is appealing.

    For example, perhaps an Apple PVR could record the latest shows FTA, but also download older episodes from iTunes, or ‘subscribe’ to downloadable Showtime movies. The best of both worlds.

    I personally don’t subscribe to payTV (here in Australia) but would happily pay $20/mth for the ability to watch movies on Showtime. Or perhaps $5/mth for our USA/Scifi equivalents. That wouldn’t mean streaming channels, rather giving me a list of shows on Scifi and the ability to download those - BUT the majority of my content would still be recorded via PVR (the latest FTA stuff!). That takes the pressure off the internet.

    Greg Alexander had this to say on May 11, 2009 Posts: 228
  • To clarify for those in the U.S., several if not many countries have a thriving free TV industry where cable isn’t the dominant platform and a service provider isn’t needed for PVRs. Enough for a company like Sony to sell Play TV, a dual tuner HD PVR attachment for the PS3, without service provider.

    Kash had this to say on May 11, 2009 Posts: 12
  • I have been to Australia and Germany for a good vacation and I saw FTA television broadcasts quite compelling and the selection can be quite good. I can see what Greg is talking about an TV with FTA DVR capability.

    But, let’s be honest, Cupertino is in California and as long as the domestic US is Apple’s bread ‘n butter market, we won’t see this FTA board integrated. Fact, although FTA still breathing in the American landscape, the selection is not quite that great - public broadcasts (PBS), local biggies (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX) are all you’ve got. Yes, you can probably time-shift their primetime programming and a small slice of cheapos will be happy but that would miss the point and would not justify this one feature.

    The majority of US households are grudgingly-happy paying customers to cablecos, satcos, and telcos. If Apple offers this DVR, it will have to start there and somehow also offer FTA for those customers in the Eurozone and Australasia.

    How must the TV support thee?

    A expansion slot is what I have in mind as a solution. This slot can be served by the third party market like the iPod accessory companies. This would not add much to the cost of the hardware. The only real question is how will Apple open the hw for others to tinker? They might proprietize this expansion port (a la dock connector) and make some $$ from licensed parties. I think that is doable.

    The expansion slot should be designed to support the latest US CableCard specs, ClearQAM for the satcos, Free To Air broadcasts, and who knows what else will come out for an Apple-authorized expansion port.

    The HDD must also be easy to upgrade. An access slot should be implemented there. Then let the customer upgrade his own HDD at his own behest and expense.

    Last, I still expect the low-end Mac mini and the AppleTV to eventually merge. There will be too much overlap if the AppleTV expands upwards in features. There will be pressure for Apple to just combine the effort and you’ll just have a mini box that can be both a desktop computer (if you want) or a nice entertainment center media processor - much like the TV now but much, much better.

    Robomac had this to say on May 11, 2009 Posts: 846
  • An expandability port (cable/fta/hdd/etc), and aTV applications (ala the iPhone App Store) would combine in very interesting ways for some great options. However, I still think Apple would like the ‘elegance’ of a download, on-demand model, as Apple loves cutting from the past.

    It’s just that the current state of the Internet might not be able to support that. I wonder, if we could trust the internet speed & consistency, whether Apple would put a hard disk into an AppleTV at all?. Anyway, I suspect the internet could handle us downloading ALL our content if, for now, we removed the “on-demand” aspect, and replaced it with virtually on demand (ie: select from what’s been successfully downloaded).

    There are a great number of people who don’t want to select their nights entertainment in advance.  Even so, isn’t a PVR really a system for selecting your entertainment in advance, and then watching at your leisure?

    In the end, I think it all comes down to content. If Apple can negotiate access to content (for rental, subscription, or ad supported) then I believe it can go far without integrating a PVR. Without that, a PVR is needed, and in the US that means a cable PVR most likely from what you say - and Apple would have to drop the aTV’s ‘elegance’.

    ps. I no longer think the AppleTV will merge with the MacMini. In its elegant version anyway, I think it’ll go the other way towards the iPhone - ARM chip, higher quality graphics card, 16GB SSD, and only purchase content if you have iTunes to sync the content back to.

    Greg Alexander had this to say on May 11, 2009 Posts: 228
  • “But, let’s be honest, Cupertino is in California and as long as the domestic US is Apple’s bread ‘n butter market, we won’t see this FTA board integrated.”

    You’re not wrong there. The possibilities I mentioned were a wishlist, definitely not a prediction.

    “If Apple offers this DVR, it will have to start there and somehow also offer FTA for those customers in the Eurozone and Australasia.
    How must the TV support thee?”

    This dilemma and your answer is an expanded version of what I said in my original post.
    BTW, ideally each piece of hardware should have the ports needed to support daisy chaining multiple modules. PVR, extra harddrive, dvd, blu ray…

    Kash had this to say on May 11, 2009 Posts: 12
  • Greg, I like your insights although we may not completely agree on many things. This is called “standing your ground” and do it in an elegant way. This is how technology evolves, by the way.

    And here I am betting the house for a TV ridding its Intel processor to…(tada!) PPC. Are you surprised? You shouldn’t. PA Semi was pulled in for this very purpose. They have a low power 64-bit PPC ready for ramp production. What is the point of buying PA Semi if you are not going to use their PPC hardware? Twiddle their thumbs for fun?

    So why not ARM you say? ARM is decent for mobile applications. Low power but not enough ooomph to drive 1080p or even 720p 50inch panels. Unless you crave playing 320x240 pixel games available for the iPhone/Touch on your big screen. Not here I won’t and so as many others. If it’s true that the next TV will be a bonafied games machine then ARM would not be a good choice.

    What about Intel as it is now only faster version? Ummmm, well, if Apple missed the current design cycle to include PPC hardware for TV 3.0 then 4.0 will definitely be PPC or a derivative chip.

    FYI, PA Semi is also hard at work integrating PowerVR GPU core into their nice PPC core. Perhaps a H.264 codec will also be included into the SoC (system on a chip) This would really make a killer ATV.

    So, Greg, we can agree that Apple will stick to “bufered” SD streams and “download” HD content for as long as the only distribution is the woeful public internet. This would satisfy your “elegance” argument. Me, I would not stick too much praise on elegance. For me the word would be “simplicity that works”. it doesn’t have to be beautifully elegant.

    A D/PVR option, then, will only be offered if there are partners willing to incur the increased cost of a bigger HDD. This very option would need an expansion slot and HDD access slot. I doubt Apple will sell ATV with expansion/access slots without ready partners - simplicity strikes again.

    The Mac mini is predominantly an entertainment media processor (EMP?) not a desktop. TV is a dedicated entertainment media processor. Why not combine the two platform and “simplify”? Apple can still use the mini’s price slot for the rumoured ARM-based touchscreen device. The combined device can occupy the $299 slot or $99 leased from a service provider. FYI: Roku is $99 with a Netflix streaming service.

    Robomac had this to say on May 11, 2009 Posts: 846
  • “The possibilities I mentioned were a wishlist, definitely not a prediction.”

    Kash, I suppose we are all making wish lists until the actual TV 3.0 comes out. Then we start making new wish lists for next year.

    Isn’t it FUN to be following  tech?


    Robomac had this to say on May 11, 2009 Posts: 846
  • Yeah the PA Semi stuff for PPC is interesting, but I fear it wasn’t the reason they bought the company. Time will tell and it could certainly be interesting.

    I know the ARM chip is slower. There are faster versions (multi core etc), but I would think it would actually be dependent far more on the graphics chip in my world smile Definitely 1080p capable.

    ps. To me, “simplicity that works” IS elegance. Actually, not just me… I looked it up, in science that’s the meaning of elegance… smile

    Greg Alexander had this to say on May 11, 2009 Posts: 228
  • “Isn’t it FUN to be following  tech? “
    Yes, and a little frustrating sometimes too smile

    Kash had this to say on May 11, 2009 Posts: 12
  • I wouldn’t be surprised if PA Semi group creates an ARM multicore with PowerVR GPU core and some PPC tech sprinkled in. Those guys had a good low power PPC product and they could migrate that knowledge for an ARM-based SoC (Apple was an original ARM supporter in the Newton).

    Yah, we’ll see but I am still cheering for the return of a nice PPC mobile chip. There is no technical limitations for OSX supporting all three hw platforms. A separate HAL abstraction layer + a recompile of OSX core + Universal Binary and voila! PPC is back Mac! wink

    Keep in mind, only the Mac desktop requires Intel platform for those who want to virtualize Windows along with OSX. Other than that, there really is no need for Intel to run OSX. Intel is doing such a great job though keeping ahead of the power curve from AMD that Apple may stay with Intel for a long while on the desktop.

    Things blur for OSX when it comes to embedded applications such as TV. The mobiles are now entrenched in ARM code so I think mobiles will stay ARM. The ATV, on the other hand, has not firmly established its own ecosystem just yet.

    Going ARM might make sense to be binary compatible with the mobiles but not a sure thing. The ATV’s technical requirements differ from those of the iPhone/Touch. ATV’s games and apps will be natively HD not 640x480 pixels, or worse.

    Robomac had this to say on May 11, 2009 Posts: 846
  • Unfortunately, I think that if PPC & Intel co-existing was possible, Apple would never have spruiked the “transition” the way it did. They would have spoken about universal binaries and co-existing Intel and PPC products, enabling Apple to choose the best from both architectures moving forwards. The low end Power chips (not PPC) IBM was using were looking brilliant for PowerMacs.

    Do you consider it plausible that the same ARM chip could be used in AppleTV & iPhone - but with a much bigger graphics chip for the AppleTV? Could it be engineered such that the video went straight from hard disk to GPU (not via the CPU)?

    Greg Alexander had this to say on May 12, 2009 Posts: 228
  • Like I mentioned in my last post, if Apple went with a re-engineered ARM multicore + PowerVR core capable of HD & H.264 then I’m all for it.

    TV is a “closed” or embedded box unlike the Mac desktops. The CPU/GPU/OS/firmware are not relevant to the consumer in an embedded device. Like do we really care what OS/CPU on those nice Samsung refrigerators? Microwave ovens? What matters is the final output and how solid an HD experience will be and can an ARM-based platform support HD games, apps, and media?

    If ARM satisfies this question then I say go for it. If not, you have to look back to a low-power multicore PPC or a multicore Intel. Which would it be?

    As to the Mac desktops, although the UB framework can support any CPU architecture in theory (it does it well actually). It made business sense for Apple to switch to Intel completely. Why not AMD? VIA? Sure, they can be supported as proved by the Hackintosh people. But simplicity strikes those out. Intel’s CPU roadmap is paved like a sweet Alpine highway - and the Intel discount is perhaps too delicious to look elsewhere.

    Another powerful motive for the desktop Intel switch was the urge to run x86 code natively (hypervisor or what not) on the Mac hardware. People were sick of slow, bloated, and unreliable VPC x86 emulators at the time. Now all you hear are praises.

    PPC or Power for the Mac Pro desktop today is doable but unlikely. There is no benefit for Apple and end users alike.

    Mobiles are now locked to ARM architectue and deserving.

    Will embedded devices go ARM? If ARM can support the rigorous specs for HD games and content then it just makes sense. Simplify.

    If not, embedded devices have a choice of PPC or Intel.

    Greg, as for the GPU is all you need for a good TV, I agree and disagree all the same. Although GPU’s can now access main memory directly via DMA (or some exotic local bus tech) they still are restricted to rendering frames and pushing pixels. GPU’s are not computing engine nor calculating physics of the game. GPU’s are still tied to the CPU logic and memory controller. Yes, the road to a more “logical” GPU is slowly taking hold as in NVidia CUDA tech that will be in Snow Leopard. Leave that for another chat session shall we?

    So, if Apple integrates the PowerVR with H.264 codec into a multicore ARM or PPC, that may be a one strong combination of an elegant SoC chip.

    Again, it doesn’t matter what CPU core Apple chooses. It just have to satisfy the specs and needs to make business sense.

    Robomac had this to say on May 12, 2009 Posts: 846
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