Call me crazy, but I'm hoping for a surprise announcement from Apple on Monday.
iOS 7 will bring an App Store to the little set-top box that could, the Apple TV. I know, I know, not again but I believe now is the right time.
Negotiating The Future
Everyone has wondered why Apple hasn't released an App Store for the Apple TV for the past two years, it seems like such an obvious thing to do. I suspect Apple was trying to convince networks to climb aboard their "crazy" over-the-top internet TV service during this time. Releasing an App store then would've just confused things. Once those talks with the networks stalled, either because of existing contracts that wouldn't allow them, or the networks not wanting to stir the pot with cable providers, it was on to the next option.
There were rumors that Apple was in talks with different cable operators about some type of partnership, but they probably didn't take it too kindly that Apple tried to erase them from the equation by going to the networks first. My thoughts last year were that Apple would do the deals needed with as many cable providers as possible. Apple would essentially be the new cable box. It now seems either those talks have stalled as well or Apple decided to forgo being the cable box and take a more modern approach that gives them more control and flexibility.
Would Apple rather have a service similar to what they're setting up with music (iRadio)? Having control of how the content is delivered and displayed while the user pays a subscription or listens/watches ads via the iAd service. Sure. But at the moment, the TV industry isn't nearly as desperate the music industry was when iTunes was created. In fact, the TV industry is going through a bit of a boom. Even though we can all see the writing on the wall, what company C.E.O. is going to stick their neck out to take the inevitable hit in revenues during the transition. There a few networks sticking their toes in the digital water like HBO Go & ABC but there are still caveats to get access.
What about the cable providers, surely they'd want to play ball right? They're the easiest part of the equation to live without. Like many have pointed out before, the cable industry isn't as much of an oligopoly as the phone companies are. There are a number of big fish like Comcast, Time-Warner, Charter, AT&T, Verizon, DirecTV, and Dish, then there are at least a dozen smaller companies that operate all over the country and that's just the United States. Apple can't just partner with one or two cable providers and get a large swath of the country like they could in the cell phone industry.
So without the right pressures to push the TV industry into the future, Apple has to figure out a way to continue to encourage the transition. They also have to remain flexible and not paint themselves into a corner functionally, if/when attitudes change with content owners.
Unifying The Wall Of Apps
So that leaves the easiest and most obvious solution, create an App Store specifically for the TV. Currently the iPad has dozens of TV, cable and video related apps while the Apple TV only has a hand full. In order to watch apps from your iPad/iPhone like HBO Go, ABC, or CNN on your TV you must use Airplay to beam them to your Apple TV. Airplay was a really good stop gap to getting content outside of what the current Apple TV offered on your TV. But relying on the wireless protocol to be the primary way for video to be delivered from apps to the TV would be ridiculous. Not only are you telling people without iOS devices to not even consider the Apple TV but using it for more than watching a quick video or two starts to become a pain, especially if you're using multiple apps.
But clicking on individual silos of content wrapped in apps, even on the TV, can still be a bit of a chore after a while. Could Apple come up with a software solution to solve the discoverability problem? There has been talk of Apple allowing more synergy between apps, maybe this begins in iOS 7. If Apple created API's that allowed apps to see certain meta data from other apps, they could in theory create a guide that could scrape the content from all the apps it's told to look through. This "Apple TV Guide" could list all of the available content, LIVE or on-demand and organize it. Clicking a specific show could instantly launch said show immediately, directly from the app. The user could also cue up other content on a iOS device while still watching the current video/TV show. As Apple so famously does, I could imagine them releasing this killer app as a way to showcase the new app store as well as show off the API's.
Taking The Long Road
This slower approach allows networks to continue to add content at their own pace and terms while giving users a user-friendly way to enjoy all of their content in a unified experience. This still allows apps to be authenticated if need be but also opens the door for a per app subscription service at some point in the future. Even if cable providers wanted to put apps on the Apple TV (Time Warner just might) it could be integrated into the "Apple TV Guide App". Granted I'd imagine networks taking issue with users not having to launch their apps directly, but having the guide launch another app before showing the video you want to watch could get really old, fast. Hopefully they could find a solution that makes networks happy without breaking usability.
In his 3 part series on the future of TV, former Apple employee Ben Thompson makes excellent points on why a la carte channels are a fantasy and un-bundling channels would only lead to specialty content like ESPN or HBO being incredibly expensive if they wanted to retain their current revenue.
In his most recent post he talks about the roles that television fill in our lives. He looks at which areas television still excels at (Live sports, story-telling, escapism) and where the internet has been doing a better job (Keeping us informed, Education). He talks about how escapism could be won by making the Apple TV a gaming console, something I've discussed numerous times here before. Selling the Apple TV for $99 and an official Apple game controller for $49 and an App Store could change the entire landscape of the video game industry. With more than just touch controls, developers could create more complex and challenging games that could make the Apple TV the greatest indie gaming device ever created that's not a PC. The Apple TV offering a moderate to causal gaming experience would put a death nail in Nintendo and put Microsoft and Sony on alert.
There is no telling what Apple will do with the Apple TV, but the writing is on the wall, content and access are what every new set-top box announced lacks. Apple has the leverage and user base to get out ahead of competitors like Roku and the Xbox One by using their army of developers to create experiences that are unmatched, like they did with iPad apps.