Cable TV talks prove the Apple TV is more than just a hobby for the technology giant

16 Aug 2012

While talk of Apple actually manufacturing its own physical TV appears to have abated somewhat lately, the Apple TV set top box device that functions as a video store and media hub for many clued in users but often spoken of modestly by Apple CEO Tim Cook and Apple’s senior vice-president, Industrial Design, Jonny Ive as a mere ‘hobby’ is anything but.

Sales of the Apple TV hub are on track to double to beyond 5m in 2012 and speaking at an All Things Digital conference earlier this year, Cook said he intends to keep on pulling on the string to see where the Apple TV adventure takes the company.

The big news from Silicon Valley today is that Apple’s senior management is in talks with some of the biggest US cable operators about allowing consumers to use the Apple TV as a set top box.

Let’s be honest, the Apple TV is damn good tech

The diminutive little device packs a serious technological punch as most users can attest. It allows you to download the latest movies and TV box sets, interact with your iTunes music and videos, watch Netflix and at present select TV channels.

However, until users have used the device they have to be convinced, but it is easy to see why Apple’s top brass are intrigued by its potential.

Anyone familiar with Apple products usually has to lift their jaw off the floor the moment they power it up and witness their beloved TV take on the appearance of a top-grade Mac.

The user interface is stylish and simple, and there is clearly loads of room to deliver actual TV channels as apps. As a wireless device it works seamlessly with other Apple devices.

You have to admit it is an interesting space that has yet to soar. Microsoft’s Xbox 360, for example, also functions as an entertainment hub as does Sony’s PlayStation 3, and there have been examples of convergence with TV operators, such as Sky, BBC and RTÉ.

UPC has still to deliver its fabled Horizon set top box that also functions as a digital lifestyle hub, Google’s Google TV has been given a second life and we’re all waiting to see what becomes of the Nexus Q from Google. Players like TiVo and Samsung also have set top box products in the market and satellite broadcasters like Sky have developed niche 3D and HD offerings through their own-designed set top box products.

In addition, TVs themselves are becoming  better connected, such as the latest offerings from Samsung and Panasonic. The impressive Samsung E8000 includes motion and gesture controls and has a built-in video camera for Skype calls.

It’s a crowded space that Apple is targeting and I’ll be curious to see if these talks with cable operators bear any fruit.

It’s likely they will be suspicious of Apple’s intentions and whether it will compete with them in the on-demand content space. They will want to avoid the ‘dumb pipe’ perception that haunts many telecoms operators in an increasingly Googlised world.

But there is a lot of good Apple can do here, too. Most people still can’t live without their TV despite the rise of tablet computers like the iPad, yet they are dissatisfied with the lack of progress – real progress – in terms of TV technology.

The TV model is broken, someone has to fix it

The TV apps marketplace has yet to truly emerge and the commercial applications allied with social layers applied to live programming present mind-boggling opportunities.

But no one has succeeded in tying these things together very effectively. Apple has already been here in terms of fixing the music model, with the iPod and iTunes, the state of mobile phones with the iPhone, and has effectively re-invented computing with the iPad and the MacBook Air.

Could it do the same with the TV? There are two ways this could play out: Apple could proceed slowly and steadily with its ‘hobby’ and convince broadcasters to embrace the Apple TV and all the time adding compelling new functions and services; or it could, as many have hoped, reinvent the television with a set of its own design.

Whether it wants to admit it or not, TV is no longer a hobby for Apple.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years