When you unboxed my hypothetical Apple Television Set you would find three devices inside. There would be a lovely large display panel with an impossibly thin bezel (unadorned by an Apple logo). It’d have one wire, the power plug. The second device would look very much like the current Apple TV though it’d sport an HDMI input or two on the back. The third device would be a remote control. It’d look much like the current remote but have only one button, right where the circular buttons are now. You’d place the display where you’d like it (using the optional iMac style foot it comes with, though that’s just connected to the display with a standard VESA mount), and then plug it in. You’d stick the Apple TV box someplace where you don’t have to see it (though it’ll still be prettier than all your existing equipment) and plug it in. Then the display would light up and show the Apple logo just as on an iOS device. You’d be shown a list of WiFi networks and you’d pick one, the iPhone in your pocket would ping and you’d be asked if you wanted to allow the Apple TV to join the network, and you’d tap “Allow”. The display then shows you the new main Apple TV navigation interface which involves moving a blue highlight around by swiping on the new remote control or, if you’d like to find something rather than browse, you’d hold the button on the remote and ask a Siri sibling to find the content you’d like to watch.
Wouldn’t that be nice? Here’s how Apple can do it.
I’ve done a lot of thinking about the Apple TV. For some reason it fascinates me. It’s entirely different from the other applications of software. First, it’s a shared experience rather than a direct experience like a Mac or an iOS device. Second, this shared experience means there’s necessarily an indirection of input — if a screen is big enough to be seen by everyone in the room you’re not going to be close enough to it to mess with it directly. So when the rumours went around of an iOS based Apple TV coming I became intrigued and tossed some ideas back and forth with a friend. Mostly the discussion came down to input methods — what could they do and what’d that mean for the interface? Around that same time Bluetooth 4.0 was ratified and the specification includes a low power mode. I guessed that if the Apple TV had a Bluetooth 4.0 chip then we’d see a new remote, if not we’d likely just stick with what we had.
Well, it turns out the new iPhone 4S has a Bluetooth 4.0 chip and since all of these devices, broadly, share a generational common platform we can expect to see it appear in the next iteration of Apple TV. So that’s one part of the puzzle. My guess is for the new remote is a touch sensitive surface with a mic that’s activated by holding down on the Select button. That’s my guess at least, if you can’t play with these things it’s hard to know how they’ll actually work.
But there’s a lot more going on with my hypothetical Apple Television Set than just a fancy remote. There’s no wires, there’s the box finding the display and there’s joining the network effortlessly. How can all of that happen? I believe it’s all possible thanks to the details in this report by Nilay Patel writing for The Verge.
I like this report because it’s a little forlorn — the intent is to convey that AirPlay won’t be enabled over Bluetooth contrary to previous rumours. But buried in here are, to my mind, major clues to technology that will change the value proposition of an Apple Television Set.
Made For iPhone accessories have to be authenticated by iOS to work, and the new chip is an authentication module that works over the dock connector, AirPlay, and Bluetooth.
Sounds perfect for an authentication system that’d be required to stream protected content wirelessly to a display. We’d need that if we were going to build my hypothetical Apple Television Set. So the Apple TV box and the Display could find each other via Bluetooth and authenticate with each other. Since you’re very unlikely to be plugging in three sets of these things within Bluetooth range of one another the odds are good that you don’t need to worry about selecting specific devices. And in the cases where that might happen well just read the Tech Note that tells you to do them one at a time. But we’re still at a loss about how we can connect to the WiFi network so easily.
We’re also told Apple is making it easier to for MFI accessories to connect to Wi-Fi networks by automatically pulling the appropriate configuration information from your iOS device over Bluetooth or the docking cable — all you have to do is approve the request and your accessory will hop online without any extra effort.
So if you’re in an Apple based household the odds are good that your new Apple TV will be able to talk to one of your other devices and get the required network info from it. I’d bet heavily that this capability makes its way into AirPort devices and Macs. “Want to let this device on your network?”, is exactly the level of simplicity that Apple tends to aim for.
I think the pieces are coming together to make an Apple Television Set an interesting and worthwhile proposition. The Apple TV box device finds and communicates with the Display seamlessly. The control channel between the Display and the Apple TV box is based on a low power Bluetooth 4.0, the Display doesn’t even need an on/off button since it draws so little power. Once the Apple TV box has turned on the Display it feeds it video via AirPlay over the WiFi network. The HDMI inputs on the Apple TV box are displayed in the interface just like other sources of input, like NLB or NetFlix.
The beauty of this sort of setup is that it disconnects the iteration of the Apple TV box from the expensive Display. One key argument against Apple doing a television set has been that people buy new TVs infrequently and so it’d take a long time to break into the market. By building an Apple TV box that can act as it does now but also deal so much more magically with a terrific television then Apple can gain traction selling the devices and accrue additional sales in a new market as users buy into the whole device chain.
I’d believed the idea of Apple doing a television set to be a little far fetched or, at least, something I couldn’t see the value of. With the new information to hand I feel like there really could be a compelling product there. Not, mind you, a blow out success like the iPhone or iPad, but something solid and sustainable.
Oh, and in the impossibly thin bezel of the Display would be a FaceTime camera.