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Finding Clues to the Next Apple TV in iOS 9

As an Apple TV aficionado, I’m a bit bummed out. The third-generation model is now three years old, and it has grown so long in the tooth that Amazon’s Fire TV has taken the top position in our living room. I was hoping to spend this summer writing an update to “Take Control of Apple TV,” but the WWDC keynote gave us nothing new on that front, though the Apple TV is now $30 cheaper. Even Apple’s new Apple Music service has left the Apple TV out in the cold so far.

Even while I was originally drafting “Take Control of Apple TV,” I lived in constant fear that a new version would come along, forcing a rewrite. And then for months after, I kept expecting a new one, discussing it on podcasts and here in TidBITS (see “The Future of Apple TV,” 21 February 2014). But nothing came. Have I become like Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster, who for years tilted at the windmill of an Apple television set?

No. Something is coming, and there are clues in the upcoming iOS 9, just as iOS 8 offered clues about the Apple Watch. But first, let’s chase an elephant out of the room before we have a major cleanup job on our hands…

Apple TV’s Not an Ex-Parrot — Let me first dismiss the notion that Apple is discontinuing the Apple TV. Yes, the March price drop could have been interpreted as a liquidation, but there’s no lack of Apple TVs for sale now, months later (see “Apple Announces HBO Partnership, Cheaper Apple TV,” 9 March 2015). And why bring HBO on stage to announce Apple’s (short-lived) HBO NOW exclusivity if Apple’s main living room device was nailed to its perch?

There’s a single clue in the upcoming OS X 10.11 El Capitan to prove that the Apple TV hasn’t kicked the bucket: AirPlay support in Safari. Why would Apple add that feature, much less showcase it in the WWDC keynote and on its Web site, if the company was about to axe the only product it sells that can take advantage of AirPlay video?

You might say, “But the AirPort Express acts as an AirPlay receiver!” True, but it doesn’t do video. Here’s Apple’s description of AirPlay in Safari: “Play video from a web page to your TV with Apple TV — without showing everything else on your desktop. Just click the AirPlay icon that appears on compatible web videos and you can watch your video on the big screen.” I added the emphasis on video there, because Apple mentions it three times. Maybe the feature will support audio streams as well, but video is clearly the emphasis, and the only Apple-sanctioned AirPlay video receiver on the market is the Apple TV.

Still not convinced? OK, maybe the Safari team isn’t necessarily talking to the Apple TV team. Maybe the Apple TV is already pining for the fjords and the Safari folks just don’t realize it yet? But surely the marketing team would know something, at least enough to not mention AirPlay.

I have even more evidence. HomeKit, iOS 8’s long-delayed home automation framework, uses the Apple TV as a gateway device. From Apple’s support document on HomeKit:

If you have an Apple TV (3rd generation or later) with software version 7.0 or later, you can control your HomeKit-enabled accessories when you’re away from home using your iOS device.

Sign into iCloud with the same Apple ID on your iOS device and Apple TV, and you’ll be able to use Siri commands to remotely control your accessories. If your remote access isn’t working, sign out of iCloud on your Apple TV, then sign back in.

While HomeKit was announced over a year ago, it only recently became available to users, so why would Apple make the Apple TV HomeKit’s gateway into the home if it had joined the choir invisible? Apple makes some curious decisions, but (to switch from Monty Python references to “The Princess Bride”) that’s just inconceivable.

Even more curious is why the Apple TV is being used as the gateway. Wouldn’t using AirPort base stations make more sense, since those already act as Internet gateways? I think HomeKit is a clue about bigger things to come for Apple TV.

Maybe you’re still unconvinced. Well, at this point, I doubt anything I say can make you a believer. But, can you explain why Apple recently gave the Apple TV its own section in the Apple Store after years of burying it? Also, consider this: the Apple TV is the only inexpensive, user-friendly way to display iTunes content on your TV. Regardless of how popular or profitable it is, it’s an essential piece of Apple’s overall ecosystem. And Apple still ships more Apple TVs than digital media streaming
devices sell from Roku, Google, or Amazon.

No, the Apple TV is not dead. It’s merely resting.

The Clues — If the Apple TV is not pushing up daisies, what might be in its future? Clues abound in Apple’s recent operating system announcements.

While Apple still struggles to maintain both OS X and iOS at the same time, it has found ways to build synergies between its operating systems. Features will be developed on one platform, and later move to others. The most blatant example of this was Mac OS X 10.7 Lion, in which many iOS innovations went “back to the Mac,” and the most recent example is Force Touch migrating from the Apple Watch to the MacBook line. I bet the next iPhone will support Force Touch as well.

iOS 8 offered a number of clues about Apple’s watch ambitions. Widgets, interactive notifications, voice messages, Health, and Handoff all foreshadowed significant aspects of watchOS. And even though not every iOS 8 feature appeared in watchOS, some showed us what Apple was thinking, like contact shortcuts in the app switcher.

Just as iOS 8 offered clues about the Apple Watch, I think iOS 9 contains clues about Apple’s thinking about the next-generation Apple TV.

One of the biggest complaints about streaming boxes like the Apple TV is that search is a mess. Let’s say you wanted to watch the brilliant, but recently cancelled, show “Hannibal.” Since the Apple TV offers no system-wide search, you have to dive into each app to see if the show is there. After a bit of digging around, you might figure out that it’s for sale in iTunes and recent episodes are on Hulu Plus, but it will take some work.

Things are slightly better with the Fire TV, since it has both system-wide search and voice search. So with a word, you’d discover that “Hannibal” is available on Prime Instant Video. But what about shows not on Prime? That gets more complicated. Amazon’s search will direct you to shows on Hulu Plus, but not Netflix.

Thankfully, iOS 9 offers a solution: in-app search. Thanks to a new Spotlight API, developers will be able to tie their apps’ data into the system-wide search. For example, searching Spotlight for “bacon” might bring up a number of bacon-related recipes in Paprika.

How great would this be on the Apple TV? With in-app search, you could use a single search box to find out that “Hannibal” is available in iTunes, Hulu Plus, and on Amazon Prime Instant Video. OK, that last one is a stretch, but a guy can dream, right?

Another new search feature in iOS 9 is Siri Suggestions. When you enter Search by sliding to the left-most screen, iOS 9 offers a number of suggestions immediately, including recent contacts, recently used apps, nearby places, and news items.

Imagine Siri Suggestions on the Apple TV. Bring up Search, and it might recommend recently watched TV shows, suggested shows and movies, and maybe even suggested music, if you subscribe to Apple Music. Siri Suggestions on the Apple TV could even have its own news section, with video links to the day’s top stories.

Speaking of Siri, it has some interesting new features in iOS 9 that could also be useful on the Apple TV. You’ll be able to search for photos and videos with Siri, so you can say, “Show me photos from San Francisco,” or “Show me videos from August 2013.” Combined with iCloud Photo Library, that would be a handy feature on the Apple TV. You can also tell Siri to remind you of something you’re currently looking at in iOS 9. So you could tell Siri on an Apple TV, “Remind me to watch this later” while viewing a movie listing.

A new iPad feature in iOS 9 is a natural for the Apple TV: picture-in-picture. When you’re watching a video on the iPad in iOS 9, if you press the Home button, the video keeps playing, shrunk down to a small window in the lower-right corner of the screen. You can move and resize this window, as well as use in-window controls to play or pause the video, restore it to full-screen, or dismiss it. This would be great on the Apple TV, as you could keep watching a video as you’re browsing around the interface, looking for the next thing to watch.

Outside of iOS 9, the beta for OS X 10.11 El Capitan also holds a possible clue about the next Apple TV. Mark Gurman of 9to5Mac discovered a settings file that references a new Apple Remote with a multi-touch trackpad, infrared sensor, and possibly Force Touch. These sorts of hidden device references have been discovered before, and are usually accurate indicators of upcoming products, though I’m not holding my breath.

So Where Is This New Apple TV? — If Apple hasn’t killed the Apple TV, but has instead spent years developing something new and possibly revolutionary, then where the devil is it?

My guess, based on the rumor mill, is that the holdup is in negotiations with content providers. Piecing together the rumors, the story seems to be that Apple had originally planned the next Apple TV to act as a cable box, but negotiations with cable companies, especially Comcast, soured. Apple then pivoted to an Apple TV based around a Sling TV-style service, which was planned to be unveiled at this year’s WWDC keynote, but negotiations with content providers hit a last-minute roadblock (for more on Sling TV, see “FunBITS: Sling TV Is Made for Cord Cutters,” 20 February 2015). Some have speculated that the absence of the Apple TV was why the Apple Music introduction was so long and
haphazard. I’m not sure I buy that, since Apple sets its own schedule for events, but it’s believable that a last-minute change to the keynote led to a bit of chaos.

I’m not sure how true this story is, but it makes sense. Apple could have easily introduced a new Apple TV with the same software years ago. But Apple usually likes to have a software story to tell alongside new hardware, and when it comes to TV, content is king. The content and distribution side of the TV business is notoriously complex, and every media company has an entirely reasonable fear that Apple will take control if given the chance.

But enough Kremlinology. I’d like to address a question that I’m asked repeatedly by readers: should you buy an Apple TV now, or should you wait?

It’s based on the fear that Apple will release a new Apple TV any day now, instantly making your $69 purchase obsolete. Chances are that if Apple were to release a new Apple TV this year, it would be sometime in September, to coincide with new iPhone and iPad releases. As I write this, that release is probably about two months away.

I’d counter with this question: do you need a new Apple TV right now? There are two things an Apple TV can do that no other set-top box can: play video content from the iTunes Store and act as an AirPlay receiver (there are AirPlay hacks for most set-top boxes, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a reliable one). If you need those features sooner rather than later, go ahead and plunk down your $69. Even if a new model is released, the old third-generation model should keep doing those things for years. (That said, I wouldn’t bother replacing a second-generation Apple TV with a third-generation model — it’s just not enough of an upgrade to justify the cost.)

Ultimately, $69 is chump change in the Apple hardware world. Even if you buy a new $99 Apple TV in a few months, you’d be out only $168 before tax, which isn’t much compared to even an Apple Watch. And that old Apple TV may still be useful with a second TV, or converted into an audio AirPlay receiver. Who knows, maybe you won’t like the next Apple TV, or it’ll be plagued by launch bugs. The existing Apple TV works fine now, even if it’s a bit dusty.

If you don’t need iTunes video or AirPlay, and want something now, I’d suggest looking at alternatives. A lot of people like Roku’s products, and the Fire TV has grown on me since I wrote “Fire Watch with Me: Amazon Fire TV vs. Apple TV” (13 May 2014).

But I miss AirPlay, and I like being able to control the TV with my Apple Watch. So Apple, whatever the holdup is, please get it resolved so we can have a new Apple TV sometime this year!

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