Apple TV Could Still Work

Here’s how Apple can fix its living-room product.

Apple TV
Apple’s neglected child.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo courtesy of Apple.

Apple unveiled a bunch of new iPads, iMacs, and Apple Pay updates at its fall event on Thursday, but one announcement was conspicuously absent. There was nary a redesigned, updated, or even just refreshed Apple TV.

During a demo of the continuity features in Apple’s new operating system, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, Craig Federighi, said, “I’d like to play this [presentation] now, and what’s really cool is I have an Apple TV … and I can actually Airplay from my Mac to my Apple TV and project my presentation that way.” He brought it up! So he does know that Apple TV exists. It seemed like this reference might be a catalyst for transitioning to a discussion about the future of Apple TV. But then it just wasn’t. No one mentioned the product again for the rest of the event or during the Apple earnings call on Monday night.

Apple likes to keep people on their toes by defying the rumor mill when possible. For example, rumors of a smaller iPad made the rounds for years before the iPad Mini actually appeared in March 2012. And certainly the company doesn’t need to upgrade all of its products all the time. But when change is brewing, Apple prefers to be the company leading the charge, or attempting to release the definitive product at the right moment, in the case of the Apple Watch.

Media consumption is at that point now. Channels like HBO and CBS are starting to offer stand-alone streaming services for their programming, no cable subscription required. And other companies are touting massive digital libraries plus their own dongles for converting dumb TVs (not to mention smart TVs that have connectivity built in). Apple TV needs to keep pace. It’s a solid plug-and-play device for people who want to buy content through iTunes or connect to standard streaming accounts like Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Go. But paid content doesn’t seem as appealing as subscription services anymore, and in that department, Apple TV is no better than any other home streaming device on the market now.

When it was originally released in January 2007, Apple TV was ahead of the curve. The initial Roku release was more than a year away, as was Netflix’s first foray into online services and Hulu’s public debut. Apple was envisioning the world of online streaming before consumers had any collective idea that physical media would decline and cable television would change. As with digital music—where Apple wasn’t the first competitor in the space, but entered relatively early with the most advanced unifying idea—the company seemed to be positioning Apple TV as the iTunes of television.

It went pretty well at first. Apple hadn’t thought of everything and struggled to make the content deals it needed to wrangle exclusive content, but it sold nearly 1 million first-generation Apple TVs and about 4 million second-generation units. The third generation, which was released in March 2012 and had a minor refresh in January 2013, is the same product that ships today. And people seem pretty happy, given that Apple has sold more than 6 million units of that version.

But throughout all of the generations, Apple TV’s offerings have remained pretty static. In fact, it’s basically a tradition among owners who feel comfortable doing a little tinkering to hack the device and add functionality, like accessing the Apple TV’s hard drive to store anything you want on it, creating the ability to play video file types that Apple doesn’t usually support, and adding a browser. For a product that started ahead of the competition and could have dominated the field, Apple TV has evolved very little and simply made the rounds among Apple fans or people looking to buy a reasonable Christmas gift (Apple TVs cost $99) instead of pulling away from the competition.

Rumors about a truly upgraded Apple TV are often confusing because there is also frequently buzz about the possibility of Apple manufacturing a smart TV. Since nothing has materialized at all so far, it seems like margins on TVs may just be too slim to be interesting for Apple. But if that’s true, it seems like all the more reason to develop an improved Apple TV. Plus rumors about Apple TV surface all the time. In January there were reports that Apple would update the Apple TV operating system during the first half of 2014 to feel more like iOS and include support for gaming plus an expanded array of apps. That sounded reasonable, but it never materialized. Then sources pointed to an April announcement and Christmas release, claiming that Apple was negotiating with Time Warner Cable and other providers to offer more content. Now that Apple has finished its announcements for the year, we know that these rumors didn’t pan out, either.

It seems reasonable that Apple was updating the Apple TV operating system and negotiating with cable companies and other providers. Since a new product didn’t debut these talks might be ongoing. But it’s disappointing to see Apple falter on something everyone wants. As Tech Cocktail points out in an homage to the collective disappointment about the lack of a new Apple TV:

The current model essentially is … the same as the model it released in March 2012, utilizing a dated A5 chip—the same one used in iPhone 4S and iPad 2. And, by Apple-standards (or even modern technological standards), that’s way too outdated.

For a company that pushes new iPhones every 10 months, there’s something strange about letting Apple TV languish.

At this point, the company needs to do damage control. It should release a more powerful Apple TV with additional apps and, ideally, content partnerships. Apple has made some minor moves to turn Apple TV into a smarthome hub, and it should commit to this idea. A central device like Apple TV would be the perfect place for HomeKit apps to live so people can coordinate and control their smarthome devices (with additional mobile access, of course). And then there’s AirPlay. Apple’s proprietary wireless streaming protocol for media is one of Apple TV’s most beloved features, but it’s also known for being buggy. Apple should expand and improve AirPlay to make it a more reliable and enjoyable way to integrate TVs into lots of everyday scenarios.

It’s pretty clear that long term Apple just needs a clearer unifying vision for handling home entertainment and dealing with content negotiations. You know you have a problem when people have been making Godot jokes about your product for two years.