What’s the deal with AppleTV?

Steve Jobs seems to be doing his best Katy Perry impression, at least when it comes to the new Apple TV. Is it a hobby, or not? Is it iOS, or not? Is it really the somewhat disappointing evolutionary upgrade we got a glimpse of a few weeks ago, or is it actually quite a bit more than that? There has been plenty of conjecture about the new Apple TV across the Internet since its announcement, but the pace has really picked up over the last couple of days, as more concrete evidence of the Apple TV running iOS has come to light. So what does this mean? Until people start getting the Apple TV in their hands, it’s hard to be sure. Until then, let’s take a look at what we know, and what we think we know.

Between Steve Job’s presentation, a few hands on reports at the Apple event, and the FCC approval, here is what we know for a fact about the Apple TV:

  • It still has a USB port, which gives us hope in the hacking/jailbreaking department.
  • It has true dual band 802.11 b/g/n WiFi
  • It has bluetooth. As I recall, this wasn’t announced by Steve Jobs. Its inclusion is big deal, though, as it could allow for keyboard, mouse, and possibly some type of future game controller support. Even if it is limited to jailbreak apps, just look at what several developers have done with the WiiMote on iOS.
  • It has Netflix streaming, which brings it up to par with current game consoles and set top players. This is built into the OS, but we can safely assume it is just an included app, similar to the YouTube player.
  • It has AirPlay, which can stream all kinds of content from PCs, MACs, and iOS devices. This feature looked like a significant step forward for Apple TV during Steve Job’s announcement, but now looks even better. Several media outlets have revealed that iOS apps that make use of the standard player for video content can also stream to the Apple TV. This means it may be possible to see app content on the Apple TV, without having to actually install apps on it. We still don’t know exactly what this will look like, but it is definitely makes AirPlay a more intriguing feature.
  • It has the same A4 processor as the latest iOS devices. This certainly makes it seem likely that the Apple TV runs a version of iOS, but nothing official has been announced on this point.
  • Whatever OS it runs, it still has a media-centric UI skin on top of it. It just looked like an upgraded version of what we are used to from previous Apple TV versions in Steve Job’s presentation.
  • It does not store content locally, but streams it instead.

Here is what we think we know:

  • Thanks to a line of code pointed out by a TUAW inside source (seen here), it looks like there is proof that the new Apple TV is running iOS.
  • Steve Jobs mentioned the iPhone Remote App in his speech, but didn’t announce anything about versions or an impending upgrade. Thanks to the mention, we can safely assume we will see it at some point. We just don’t know when, or what new features it may have.

And here is what we don’t know:

  • Even though it doesn’t store content locally, it has to have some amount of on-board flash for the OS and built in applications. However, we have no idea how much there is or how easy it will be to use.
  • We don’t know if the Apple TV was designed with App Store integration and running 3rd party apps in mind.
  • We don’t know if the Apple TV is running the full iOS that we are used to. Is the OS modular? If so, what is left out?

So, what is the significance of all this? What stands out to me is that Steve Jobs didn’t mention the inclusion of iOS or Bluetooth connectivity in his Apple TV announcement. He seemed hell-bent on tempering the expectations for the Apple TV right out of the box. If there really is no master plan to expand the device into an App Store compatible, set top game and app machine, then I can understand him not touching on it. That would just get people’s hopes up for something Apple isn’t willing to deliver and may not have equipped the Apple TV to be able to handle.

I am definitely confused on the inclusion Bluetooth. I can understand why it wasn’t mentioned in Steve Job’s speech, as there were no features that he spoke about that required Bluetooth to work. However, I am quite confused why its inclusion wasn’t at least mentioned in the device specifications. If it isn’t going to be used, then why is it even there? If my memory serves, the original Apple TV didn’t include Bluetooth. Maybe it’s my inner conspiracy theorist running wild, but I don’t think the folks at Apple are telling the whole story on Apple TV.

If there is really nothing more to the Apple TV than what we have been told, then it is a nice upgrade to the original, but a bit of a disappointment to many tech enthusiasts like myself. On the other hand, if there is an original iPhone-like plan to release the device and then unlock more functionality down the road, then I am excited for the possibilities, but concerned that Apple has made a big mistake this time out. When Apple released the original iPhone, there was nothing else like it anywhere. It delivered a completely unique UI, the richest web experience available on a mobile device, and was a giant leap forward for the iPod, which had stagnated a bit. The rest of the mobile phone market was at such a disadvantage after the release of the original iPhone, that Apple had time to play around in their new sandbox before anyone could hope to catch up. They wisely fixed many mistakes, learned from what they saw in the jailbreak community, and blazed a totally new trail with the opening of the App Store. It wasn’t all that long ago in actual time, but the mobile and consumer electronics markets have changed dramatically since then, and Apple doesn’t have the luxury of time to play around anymore.

The reason that the iPad was able to lap the existing tablet field almost instantly upon release was because it hit the market as a fully featured device. If Steve Jobs had stood in front of us this Winter and told us he was bringing a new tablet to market without the App Store, we would have all yawned and gone about our technological lives. I do realize that TV is a totally different animal, and we are talking about Apple moving iOS away from a direct touch interface for the first time, which is no small matter, but Steve Jobs cannot undo what he has already done. Just look at the expectations leading up to the Apple TV announcement. Everyone and their dog thought the App Store was coming to the big screen, and there was a lot of excitement about it. When I heard Steve Jobs say “one more hobby,” I was ready to put my deposit down right then. Well, at least until I heard the rest of what he had to say.

If Apple is really planning on bringing the App Store and other iOS functionality to the Apple TV, the time to do it is now, not next year. Where the original iPhone was far ahead of the competition at its release, the Apple TV is not. Despite compelling features like Netfilx streaming and AirPlay, it is equal to or slightly behind existing set top players like Roku and Western Digital in terms of features and specs. Then we have the matter of Google TV, which is coming hot on the heels of Apple TV and will have app capability right out of the box. I know what Jobs said about people they surveyed not wanting complication and clutter on their screens, but at some point, you have to realize that people often don’t know what they really want until they see it. A lot of first gen iPhone users probably never cared about running apps on their phones until Apple gave them a fool proof and easy way to deliver them, and developers showed them the possibilities that they can unlock. If you are an iOS or Android user, can you imagine going back to a feature phone with no app capability? Didn’t think so.

It will be interesting to see what else we find out about the new Apple TV when reviewers actually get their hands on it, especially the ones who are willing to tear it apart and see what is under the hood. If they find a healthy amount of extra storage, then I’m sure we will see jailbreakers take their best shot at showing us what the Apple TV is really capable of. As an emulator fan, I can’t wait to see MAME, NES, SNES, and Genesis emulators on the big screen with multiplayer WiiMote and Classic Controller support. As excited as I am for those possibilities however, I am still disappointed at Apple’s shortsightedness with the Apple TV’s initial release. Instead of being the trailblazer, it looks like they are content to take the back seat and see what happens with everyone else this time around. I fear that they are opening the door to Google to get the first major foothold in the set top market, and relegating themselves to the now unfamiliar position of playing catch-up. Only time will tell.