Will this be the WWDC where Apple finally releases an SDK for developers to create Apple TV apps? For the past two years there have been rumors and speculation that Apple was going to make a serious play for the living room. Last year the buzz about an Apple made television reached an almost annoying level then drastically dialed down towards the end of the year.
Apple hasn't said much recently in regards to the Apple TV except that it was still an area of "great interest". Meanwhile sales of their set-top box have been growing exponentially in the past year. Last week at the D11 conference Tim Cook said the Apple TV has now sold 13 million units total, half of which were in the last year.
It's clear that the call for a better TV experience is a growing sentiment among everyone who has ever used a cable box. It's also clear that Apple has been working on creating their vision of what TV should look like in the 21st Century. There are many existing competitors in this arena like the Roku and Google TV, whose open philosophy allows almost anyone to create an app for their set-top boxes. While they both have a decent selection of Apps for video content, they haven't been able to bring in some of the major networks the way Apple has on iOS, most of which can be sent to the Apple TV via Airplay. Instead of trying to pull the networks into the future, Microsoft's Xbox One plans to meet them where they are. It appears the latest Xbox will be working more directly with cable providers by using an HDMI pass-through that allows you to control your cable through the Xbox, similar to Google TV.
None of those solutions sound like fixes to anything, not even Apple's. In fact they may even sound over complicated to the average person. Which is one of the reasons the set-top hasn't taken off. The Apple TV is the most easiest to setup and navigate but it's also one of the most empty in regards to content. Relying on a iOS device to airplay content is fine when it's convenient, an annoyance when you have to use it because the app isn't on the Apple TV.
WHY THE WAIT?
But if Apple is just going to create an Apple TV app store, and not some over-the-top TV subscription model why wait until now?
In typical Apple fashion, they never come when you call, but they're always on time (at least most of the time). People have been calling for a dedicated App store for the Apple TV for years now. It seems like such a no-brainer for Apple to do, so why haven't they? I believe they were waiting to see what they could work out with the networks and when that failed they moved to the cable providers. In the meantime, they've sold more Apple TV's than ever, increased awareness of the product (without spending a dime) and insured developer support if and when it was announced. Yes, the App Store for the Apple TV was probably a backup plan of sorts. It's not a bad backup plan to have, don't get me wrong but it makes sense that Apple would like to create more of a service than just a store. But if they can't totally reform the TV experience in their image like they did with music, that doesn't mean they still can't create a compelling product.
iOS 7 could come with lots of new features for the Apple TV SDK to better handle the increase in Apps. Voice search via iPhone/iPad, allowing Live Streaming Apps, and new ways to organize Apps on screen, maybe a completely new UI made for TV viewing via apps. There has been debate on whether having an app for every channel is what people want or if we need to create the ability to surf like on traditional TV. Either way, Apple could use this method as a stop gap until a true over-the-top strategy is realistic. They already have cable and satellite apps on iOS that enable playback. These can easily be ported to the Apple TV for those with cable subscriptions. Individual channels could charge subscriptions for access to those that don't have cable.
BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME
A small issue for developers would be their iPad apps can't just be thrown on the TV store. Since the resolution of HDTV's are (1280 X 720) and (1920 X 1080), they will have to be reformatted for TV as neither are the resolutions of any iOS device. This is in fact a good thing for Apple. It ensures that a flood of iPad apps that have no business on TV aren't ported over. It also makes developers re-think how their app should be presented on the big screen.
It's unclear if an entirely new Apple TV would be needed to run a store on it. Arguably the size for most apps would be relatively small as video content is streamed, not stored locally. Most of the TV apps on my iPad are less than 100 MB. However for gaming, app size and controls are both a concern. Current Apple TV's come with about 8GB of memory for streaming and buffering. That's more than enough for streaming and a few GB's could be used to store apps on. They could then sale new Apple TV's with larger size memories for those that want them.
Everyone has mentioned how awesome the Apple TV could be as a casual gaming console, including the co-creator of the Xbox, Nat Brown. Brown opines that Apple could "simply kill PlayStation, Wii U, and Xbox by introducing an open 30% cut app/game ecosystem for Apple TV". I wholeheartedly agree that Apple would knock the legs out of Nintendo's fan base and cause a large amount of price conscience parents to consider the Apple TV as a gaming console for their kids instead of the PS3 or Xbox 360 which will be closer to it's price range come the holidays. Cheaper software, and low barrier of entry for game developers are other advantages Apple has on traditional game consoles.
While most causal Apple fans feel iOS devices are suitable controllers for games, I couldn't disagree more. Sure for some games, gestures, swipes and gyroscope controls are good enough. But for any games that require some type of precision or higher complexity than Angry Birds, nothing beats buttons and a control stick. With the increasingly powerful chips being upgraded on a yearly basis it's not hard to imagine the Apple TV getting close to even the newest console's performance in a few years time. Under Steve Jobs, Apple never took gaming on iOS that seriously but hopefully Tim Cook will set a different tone going forward. (In my wildest dreams, Apple buys Nintendo)