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?


  • I wish that people would stop fixating on the iPhone/AT&T;combination. Look how many partners Apple has for the iPhone across the world. It is O2 in the UK. They are nothing to do with AT&T;. In each market, there is a different provider.

    They’ll have to do the same with Apple TV. I moved to the US from the UK late last year and I’m stunned to find that your choice of TV is from your cable provider (and you don’t get to choose which one) or satellite (if the building you’re in will let you have a dish). In our apartment, that gives me a choice of one TV provider.

    Since cable, satellite and digital use different technology, Apple would either have to bundle three converters with the Apple TV or make you pay extra for the one you need. I have no idea what that would mean for the decoding/processing software.

    That’s just for the US with NTSC. Then they have to deal with PAL broadcasts in the Europe and Japan, and SECAM in France.

    Frankly, the DFVR route is a dud. If they would let the AppleTV use an existing TV tuner/recording solution (such as the EyeTV), that would be better.

    The solution seems then to be the Hulu/NetFlix route. But guess what? They want to provide that content through iTunes. They wouldn’t even let the South Park boys provide video clips to the iPhone though the app store because they want you to buy into the iTunes ecosystem. And that will never change.

    Someone internal at Apple said the AppleTV is a hobby. I think you’re right, Hadley, anbd it could be so much more… But expect it to stay an Apple hobby.

    evilcat had this to say on May 07, 2009 Posts: 66
  • Why does everyone get so “enamored” with the concept of a DVR?  The DVR is a temporary stopgap because of other limitations.  A DVR is not the future, it is a band-aid for our currently delivery models.

    First of all, watching Movies and TV Shows is a completely different experience from listening to music.  I may want to hear a song 100 times a year, but only watch a movie 2 times a year.  YES, subscriptions **do** make sense for Video.

    I have an AppleTV.  I also have a BluRay player with NetFlix streaming support.  I also have a DVR from my Cable company.

    Here’s my utopia:

    1. I only need to see LIVE broadcasts (e.g. DVR) for live events.  In other words.. News, Sports, Weather.  Do these come from Apple, My Local TV Provider (a stream from my ISP) ?

    2. TV Shows, Movies, etc.  These can all be viewed when I want (on demand).  That’s why the NetFlix service is great.  I play movies when I want.  I pause, rewind, etc.  All for a flat fee.  Yes, some movies aren’t available, those might have to be premium purchases.

    3. Personal Library.  It would be nice to have access to my personal library everywhere.  Why can’t Apple “host” this for me?  Perhaps there are certain Movies that I want to access from any Apple Device (iTunes on a computer, iPhone, iPodTouch, AppleTV).  Yes, I can rip these with HandBrake, but that takes a ton of storage.  Why not have Apple store my purchased stuff.  AppleTV is intelligent cache for this information.

    So what is the AppleTV?

    It should be the device that provides a mechanism for integrating my video media from all of these different scenarios.  I don’t have to think where it is coming from (Hulu, NetFlix, Apple, my “personal” library, my LIVE broadcast provider).  Instead, AppleTV makes it seamless.  I watch what I want, when I want it.

    That’s my vision of AppleTV.

    tjack had this to say on May 07, 2009 Posts: 1
  • Apple TV is not my problem.  The ridiculous pricing of media on iTunes is.  I wouldn’t be clamoring for Netflix downloads or Hulu support if I felt the affordability of content on iTunes was good.

    hmurchison had this to say on May 07, 2009 Posts: 145
  • Forget the AppleTV.  Virtually everything you guys want, save for the DVR, is available on the Xbox360:

    1.  Netflix streaming built-in.  No need to explain further.  All you can eat streaming at the click of a button.  TV shows, movies.

    2.  Xbox Live Marketplace.  If Netflix doesn’t have it, chances are that the Xbox Live Marketplace does.  They sell and rent TV shows, movies, and have a lot of free content as well.

    3.  Personal library.  I am in the process now of converting my entire DVD and BD library to a hard drive hooked up to my Xbox360.  I can browse a list of movies and play them instantaneously.  Or, I can also stream them from my computer using a variety of options.

    4.  Hulu/Amazon/CNN/etc.  Yes, Hulu content will play on the Xbox360 using a service called PlayOn.  There’s a one-time fee of $30, but once you use it, you will find it well worth it.

    5.  Amazon Unbox.  PC-only, but there are a few ways to get Amazon Unbox content onto the Xbox.  You can either use Windows Media Sharing or Windows Media Center.

    6.  Podcasts.  Connect360 allows you to stream video and audio podcasts to your Xbox from a Mac or PC using iTunes.

    7.  Gaming.  Of course, this is what the Xbox360 was made for, and it’s awesome at it.  I’ve spent so much time using it as a media center, that I forget that it’s first and foremost a gaming console.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on May 07, 2009 Posts: 2220
  • The other option I’d recommend is the WDHD, which allows you to play video files on your TV off of a hard drive.  Supplement that with the Roku for Amazon and Netflix, and you’re mostly there.  No Hulu option just yet.

    The advantage is that the boxes are small and quiet, certainly quieter than the Xbox.  The disadvantage is that each box costs $100, so that’s $200 for not quite the full functionality of the Xbox by itself.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on May 07, 2009 Posts: 2220
  • Ipods succeeded because you could get a lot of value out of them without buying a single song from iTunes. You don’t get a lot of value from AppleTV unless you buy movies and shows from iTunes.
    Because you can’t rip your own DVDs easily and it doesn’t play many formats, it seems AppleTV exists only to sell more (overpriced) Itunes content, not to make money from selling Apple TVs. This hamstrings the device and reminds me of how Sony missed the boat on MP3 players - ie Sony hardware couldn’t build on their Walkman success with MP3 players because Sony Music didn’t want to encourage the music piracy going on.
    The holy grail of the digital home is one convergent device that handles TV, DVD and media files better and easier than separate, dedicated boxes. It probably isn’t technically possible yet but ripe for the picking. I’m suprised Apple haven’t overcome this by making AppleTV modular, so extra functionality like DVR,DVD or larger hard drives can be added if wanted, then controlled seamlessly. This would also deal with the issue of the many different digital TV formats used throughout the world. Apple is one of the few companies that can pull this off. The other is Sony, and they already have the PS3 out there which seems to amaze anyone who uses its media centre/player/online abilities. Maybe they learnt their lesson.

    Kash had this to say on May 08, 2009 Posts: 12
  • Fuhget the X-SNOT 360 when it comes to video streaming. I know it can be made to do this and satisfy those diehard gamers’ appetites for anything X-SNOT related. Leave the X-SNOT to games which does a good job… but not as good as the PS3 (sorry, FF addict since FF7 wink

    As for the rest of us more practical, there is nothing more breathtaking than watching movies streamed “on demand” in HD. No, I’m not talking about those highly-compressed and artifact-prone 1080i streams from your cable provider or 480i/p from Netflix or Hulu. I’m talking impressive bitrates from the likes of FiOS and U-Verse in 720p or 1080i. I am not aware of 1080p broadcasts at this time.

    I know for a fact since I have been a top-end U-Verse subscriber with 100Mbps+ total aggregate bandwidth. FiOS, I have seen in action in Riverside, CA is similar.

    If the AppleTV can be designed to replace the currently provided and clunky Motorola WinCE-based STBs. The AppleTV STB would have similar capabilities as it is now but better + iTunes App capabilities.

    Imagine having a well designed STB (set-top box), Hulu-type internet content, and get this, a gem of a gaming platform. Yes, the next AppleTV will have the hardware for a respectable 2D/3D capabilities (PowerVR? NViDIA?)

    I am not mentioning DVR because if AppleTV is designed for FiOS or U-Verse, there will be no need since the content will be “pushed” to you on demand. But an interim DVR capability may be a good option for some people.

    Remember, there is plenty of excess bandwidth and the movie that you may want is but a short “local node” hop away. Currently, U-Verse’s On Demand is pretty slick with lots of free stuff.

    And since the iPhone is already with AT&T;, an iPhone app to remotely program your STB (I suppose this is where the DVR capability comes into play) can be integrated. This is already done via browser. Another, all your bills will be nicely consolidated and you may even save some more $$$ there.

    Last, to really feel HD, you must have plenty of bandwidth (check), HD content must not be excessively compressed (check, check), and the STB (AppleTV 3.0) must be hooked up to at least a 50-inch HD panel (check, check, check).


    Robomac had this to say on May 08, 2009 Posts: 846
  • I like this article. I agree the biggest thing Apple could do is open up the AppleTV to 3rd party developers - it’ll mean lots of interesting new applications and a wide scope for its usage. The only reason not to do this immediately is if the next AppleTV is going to have an ARM chip (ie iPhone chip) instead of an Intel chip (ie Mac chip).

    I have a criticism of the article - I think it’s too easy to say the AppleTV is liked mainly by people who like anything from Apple. It leads to ignoring what is good currently and what is not good.

    The main thing I would add….
    AppleTV can replace a PVR without requiring a PVR, if you could get the same TV shows from iTune that we do now but with a choice of
    1) paying $1.99 to buy the episode
    2) paying 99c to rent the episode
    3) watch free, by inserting the exact adds that you would have seen if you’d recorded this on your PVR
    4) watch free, by inserting a reduced number of ads (8 ads per show?) customised precisely to your interests and location, with links online, and possibly forcing us to watch all 8 ads (no fast forward)
    5) pay to subscribe to a channel and get a collection of shows free, or with a very few ads

    Why have a PVR, if your AppleTV simulates a PVR (and better) anyway?

    Greg Alexander had this to say on May 08, 2009 Posts: 228
  • 3) watch free, by inserting the exact adds that you would have seen if you’d recorded this on your PVR
    4) watch free, by inserting a reduced number of ads (8 ads per show?) customised precisely to your interests and location, with links online, and possibly forcing us to watch all 8 ads (no fast forward)

    Does anyone know if Boxee still works on the AppleTV?  With Boxee you can Hulu videos, which basically equates to what you’re talking about here.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on May 09, 2009 Posts: 2220
  • Hi Greg, the problem with “downloads as a pvr replacement” is that apart from the fact that iTunes will not have all of the shows broadcast by networks, PVRs offers a better solution than all of the 5 options you listed. We record all the shows we want to watch so rarely watch anything “live”. This means I watch no ads, as the pvr skips them eg 4mins of ads skipped in 5 sec.
    Being free to air TV I don’t pay to watch any shows and I can keep them for as long as I want.

    I can understand why Apple wants to replace existing media distribution with it’s own ecosystem but if there’s no extra benefits, why would a consumer?

    By the way BB services like Hulu, which need a hacked AppleTV AFAIK, aren’t available outside the USA, and there’s a few of us out here smile
    IMHO downloads will be an addition, not a replacement, to existing TV. So lets get a PVR(DVR) module Apple, you’ll make some money.

    Kash had this to say on May 09, 2009 Posts: 12
  • I mentioned this DVR option on the next TV will be an interim solution.

    For one thing, local time-shifting capability is a technical solution to a present-day problem of limited bandwidth. A few years from now, this technical problem won’t be there. So, the DVR’s days are surely numbered, like DVD and, I can’t help it fellas, BluRays.

    With the advent of FiOS and U-Verse, the “end game” of excess bandwidth is coming. If cable will not adhere, its future is also numbered. Fiber optic distribution will surely reach your neighborhood. It’s just a matter of time. When they do you will be assimilated - like me - and you will never regret it.

    So, why would DVR’s become extinct? Simple. When this fiber distribution reaches critical mass in a few years, all the TV shows, movies, video rentals, new or back catalog, will all be available at the press of a button. No more local time-shifting. All the time-shifting will be done by your generous fiber optic service provider.

    This is both a plus-plus to you and the provider. First, you won’t have to mentally set the DVR again to record SNL (ooops, damn. I fgot) you’ll just know its there after the “live” broadcast. Another, the provider can always insert “fresh” ads not stale Bud Light commercials. Both sides win. Not a bad thing since there is really no “free lunch” guys. Beer, maybe.

    Remember, the IP network is fully managed unlike the unmanaged, woeful public internet where Hulu, YouTube, Netflix must traverse before reaching your Roku STB or PC. In a fully managed IP network, TV+phone+Movies -on-Demand works like a charm. Internet traffic are given the lowest priority through the IP switches and routers (like it is now on the public internet) so it is not the ideal vehicle for media distribution. Too much latency and jitter to be reliable.

    So, the AppleTV may in some future revision work with these managed IP networks (whether FiOS, U-Verse, and such) since the public internet is not a good way to stream anything without hiccups, missing frames, blocks, whatever it is called.

    Remember, even if you are rated 50Mbps down does not mean you will get a guarantee of troublefree streams from Hulu or Netflix. That is the reason the AppleTV is best when it is set to a buffered streaming or a download before playing.

    I hope to see FiOS and/or U-Verse on the next TV!

    Robomac had this to say on May 10, 2009 Posts: 846
  • Robomac Infidel >> Unfortunately, we’re more than a few years away from blanket fibre-optic coverage. I can tell you now that it will be at least 10 years before it covers the UK, especially since the dreaded recession hit, and companies are holding off spending. I just moved to the US, and there’s (irony of ironies) a Verizon flagship sotre in Harbor East specifically to sell FIOS… but they screwed up and FIOS isn’t in place yet. Those guys have been there for six months with no product to sell! I will be happy once your utopia arrives, though. Count me in.

    evilcat had this to say on May 10, 2009 Posts: 66
  • Robomac - I agree that a PVR is an interim solution, until higher speed networks are ubiquitous. However note that it’s a high speed BACKbone that’s required, not to the home, and 2Mbps will suffice for SD and 5Mbps for HD.  PVRs are also an interim solution such that the AppleTV can have all the FTA content whether the networks make a deal with Apple or not - and even though they sell shows, no network RENTS TV shows yet.

    BTW - the AppleTV is a download service, so you never get the stutters and quality drops of streaming content. That does mean that it’s not immediate gratification though, for now.

    Kash - yes in some ways a PVR is better. There is no negotiation with the networks want to protect their existing model, and every FTA show is (by definition) on FTA and not necessarily iTunes. Remember however that the ads pay for the shows, and if a large proportion of people become able to skip ads then the networks will not be able to afford to make the shows…. so ultimately we need a solution that factors that in.

    My #3 suggestion was throwing a bone to the networks - the exact same ads, but the show is downloaded instead of recorded. Probably it would allow fast forward but not ad skip, which the networks prefer (lets make sure they still make money!!). #4 suggestion is to make the ads more attractive to US - less ads, applicable specifically to me, links to reminders or more information, and localised even to my immediate area rather than my city. #4 keeps the “ad supported” model alive, as in 10 years time I don’t want to have NBC as a premium channel on payTV.

    Oh, and Kash, AppleTV would have advantages over PVRs in this model. The biggest advantage is you could watch the history of episodes of a show - a season pass would keep the earliest episode you haven’t watched ready-to-go (and the moment you start watching it, would start downloading the next episode). It could have greater content from channels not available FTA (a Showtime subscription, or a USA/Scifi subscription, without cable?)

    I have no crystal ball into Apple or the TV Networks’ desires, and a PVR would still be the best way to avoid overburdening the internet AND guarantee regular (ad-supported) content updated every week until the TV networks realise they can survive with different models (even combined with options to watch the older episodes a PVR would take lots of strain off the internet).

    Apple dropped its price hugely when movie rental came out, I presume they would want their original margins if they were largely offering a free content model.

    Greg Alexander had this to say on May 10, 2009 Posts: 228
  • Greg, I definitely agree that downloads have the advantages over Free To Air TV that you mention, and that is why Downloads will catch on and shake up existing TV, but it’s not enough to replace the functionality of a TV with PVR, as your comment “AppleTV can replace a PVR without requiring a PVR” suggests.

    The real opportunity I see for Apple is that consumers are getting more boxes under the TV than ever before, more remotes on the coffee table and more frustrated at the complexity of controlling it all. Apple won’t own the living room just by offering digital downloads, it needs to offer easy to use hardware/software that controls both existing and future media sources, with the TV acting as a monitor and the AV system as a glorified powered speaker setup. The shame is that this is exactly what Apple is best at. Until then, or until downloads have taken over the world, I’ll use dedicated boxes with my Logitech Harmony remote - damn it’s good.

    Kash had this to say on May 11, 2009 Posts: 12
  • I agree to some degree that ubiquitous fiber delivery will take some time to reach critical mass.

    We will never actually know when we reach that point. We just know that the pressure is on for the service providers due to HD=massive bandwidth. Service providers have no other choice in the fact that HD delivery will necessitate HD-capable backbones and no amount of VDSL, HPNA, MoCA, HomePlug will satisfy this. Those are the current “last mile” delivery tech for ya.

    The only solution to the problem of HD-capable backbone is, you guess it, fiber optic network. There is no denying this in the industry. This is what we call the “End Game”.

    I understand the current economic situation today but this does not change the equation, only delays it somewhat. But those bold companies will reap the benefit. Bold and great companies are born in deep recession, mind you. To wit, nobody actually forced Verizon to jump start for this “end game” with FiOS but they did. Then AT&T;fearing left out followed with U-Verse which is a cheaper copycat. Will Cable follow? You bet ya.

    Back to the DVR function again. This D/PVR function only works if Apple partners with a service provider. This would be best since the provider can subsidize TV or by leasing them. Apple can also support the latest CableCard technology for bidirectional capability. But this would add another $100 or so to the total cost not including a good sized HDD. I remember people here and there complain that AppleTV’s were overpriced at $299. How do you like $399-499 for a DVR TV 3.0?

    Unless, somehow Apple decides to become its own service provider (not surprising since iTunes Store is slowly becoming one) AppleTV 3.0 will still be relegated as a buffered stream & download only device without a DVR of sort.

    Apple cannot become its own service provider if they don’t own a fully managed network - think Verizon FiOS or AT&T;U-Verse’s. The public internet is got to be the worst network to guarantee HD delivery for anything besides download. It just don’t work. This is Netflix’s Roku or Amazon HD/Unbox or Blockbuster streaming service. It will not work for as long as the public internet is a “best effort” network which practically means this and that packet will get to you when it gets there. Otherwise, sir, you are S.O.L.

    So, do you think Apple will spend some of that $29B for a piece of a managed IP network? Partner with a biggie or two? We’ll just see what happens with TV 3.0.


    Robomac had this to say on May 11, 2009 Posts: 846
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