We’ve been talking about interactive television for at least 30 years. Apple may finally have gotten it right.
Last week, the iPhone maker introduced a new version of its Apple TV gadget that may finally marry computing, the Internet and television in a satisfying and accessible way. If it lives up to its promise, it could revolutionize the way we use our televisions.
Oh, it may change the way we watch television, too, but I find that much less interesting. What makes Apple TV really exciting is that it could help transform the dumb old boob tube found in the average American’s living room into a display for a very capable and powerful general-purpose computing device.
What’s new about Apple TV? More power: The new box will have Apple’s A8 chip, the same processor found in last year’s iPhone 6 and the current iPad Air. The old box had the 4-year-old A5 chip, which also powered the iPhone 4S. Siri control: Owners will be able to search for movies, find out sports scores and launch apps using Apple’s voice assistant technology. App access: The new box, unlike the old, will have an app store and will allow users to install third-party apps. Among those in the works: Airbnb, Zillow and a slew of games. New controller: The new remote control will have a touchpad and motion sensors and can double as a game controller. Users can also connect actual game controllers to the new box via Bluetooth.
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That’s because the new Apple TV is more than a simple streaming tool like its predecessor or most of its competitors. Unlike Apple’s earlier effort, which was limited to a few dozen Apple-selected media channels, the new Apple TV will allow users to install apps of their own choosing via an application store, just as they can on an iPhone or iPad. They’ll be able to launch and interact with those apps via Siri, Apple’s voice assistant, or through a new motion-sensing remote control.
Underlying the device and allowing it to run sophisticated and graphically rich apps is Apple’s A8 processor – the same chip that’s in the iPhone 6 – and tvOS, which is a new version of the iOS operating system that powers the iPhone and iPad.
The new Apple TV has obvious potential as a game machine. The iPhone and iPad have become popular gaming devices and users can choose from thousands of titles ranging from simple card games like solitaire to favorites such as “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” that originally debuted on powerful game consoles. Assuming Apple TV takes off, you can expect many of those games, not to mention a whole bunch of new ones, to be redesigned for it.
Some are already on the way. At a media event last week, Apple showed off games that developers with early access to the box are already working on, including the Frogger-like “Crossy Road” and “Beat Sports,” a music game from the creators of “Rock Band.”
Apple is helping to give Apple TV a leg up in games by building motion sensors into its remote control and by allowing users to connect more traditional game controllers to it.
This isn’t the first attempt to turn a streaming device into a game machine. Roku, Amazon and Nvidia’s TV boxes also play games. What makes Apple TV stand out from most of those devices is that playing games isn’t its only trick.
While watching a show, you can ask Siri to show you the weather, tell you how your stocks are doing or give you last night’s score for your favorite team. You can also get it to launch apps, which is where Apple TV’s true potential lies. Third-party apps are what helped transform phones from relatively simple communication devices into sophisticated portable computers, and they have similar potential here.
In fact, they may have an even bigger impact on the TV. Much of what users do on a smartphone is to access Web pages through a browser. But as interactive TV devices dating back to WebTV in the late ’90s have shown, few people really want to use a Web browser on a TV because it’s such a clumsy experience. So the main way users interact with information from the Internet is likely to be through apps designed specifically for the TV experience.
At the event, Apple gave a taste of what’s to come. Online clothing retailer Gilt showed off an app that will allow users to shop for and purchase clothes straight from their TV. Airbnb is working on an app that will allow users to book rooms through the TV. With Zillow’s app, users will be able to shop for an apartment from the comfort of their couch.
One of the most compelling apps on display was that from MLB.com. With that app, users could watch two games simultaneously while seeing real-time updated statistics on the teams and players involved.
You can expect that as developers get a feel for the hardware and what consumers want to do on their TVs, they’ll come up with a wide range of new and compelling apps.
To be sure, Apple TV isn’t a certain bet to transform the living room. For one thing, it’s a pricey relative to its simple streaming rivals. If all you really want to do is watch Netflix, you can easily get by with Google’s $35 Chromecast, rather than a $150 or $200 Apple TV.
For another, it’s not entirely clear that consumers really want a full computing device in the living room. The technology industry has been working on interactive TV for more than 30 years, and outside of video games and streaming media, hasn’t seen a whole lot of consumer interest. And with a smartphone usually close at hand, consumers may wonder why they need another, similar gadget attached to their TV.
What’s more, the new Apple TV has some potential shortcomings as a computing device. It’s got a limited amount of storage. It’s not clear whether it will support external keyboards or mice, so it may be difficult to create or edit documents on it. It doesn’t have a webcam and it’s not clear if it will support one, so it doesn’t look like you’ll be able to use it for video chats through your TV. And despite expectations going into the event, Apple didn’t say whether owners will be able to use Apple TV to control smart-home devices.
But even with all these outstanding questions and issues, I’m still excited about Apple TV. Thanks to it, the television may be revolutionized.