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The Slow Growth of Apple TV

This week, Apple announced some new apps for the Apple TV “hobby,” or area of interest, or “grand vision.” So you now have HBO Go, from Time Warner, WatchESPN, from Disney, Sky News, Chrunchyroll, an anime subscription service, and Qello, for concerts.

All right, I’m not familiar with some of these services, but that’s just me. The key point here is that, with the forthcoming addition of the CW network, it’s clear that Apple is moving forward to expand the content selections on the Apple TV, albeit slowly. And I should also point out that HBO Go and WatchESPN both require a subscription to a cable or satellite service that supports either app. The way U.S. providers manage contracts with the entertainment companies, that’s never a certainty. Right now, as a DirecTV subscriber, I can’t use either, although the company promises support for the Apple TV version of HBO Go soon.

The point of it all is that all of these additions make the Apple TV more and more indispensable. As it is, Apple TV is in far more homes than any similar product, such as Roku. Some 13 million have been sold so far, with half of those in the past year, according to a recent statement from Tim Cook. But you wonder where Apple is going to take it.

I suppose Apple could keep it essentially as it is, and just flesh it out with more and more apps, while refining the interface more to handle the possible clutter and delivering more powerful hardware as needed. But that doesn’t seem to be anything close to a long-term solution, so where is Apple heading?

Sure, some still suggest Apple is aching to build a big screen TV, and maybe they’re right, although that market is so saturated, it doesn’t seem there’s room for another model, even with an Apple label on it. This isn’t the same situation as the wireless handset market, where smartphones still served more as playthings for business than essential computing devices for hundreds of millions of consumers, which is what the iPhone revolution brought to the table.

After all, aside from the interface, what design choices would Apple consider for a TV set? The latest sets are already thin with narrow bezels. Most of the parts are commodity, so innovation is confined to a few proprietary picture enhancements and app collections. Picture quality ranges from good to excellent, so it’s hard to find something really bad.

3D? Well, that low-cost 55-inch VIZIO E551D-A0 that I’m reviewing now does it well enough, it you stick to the front of the set and don’t try to view at a sharp angle. But it’s not as if there’s a whole lot of 3D fare, except for a handful of summer blockbusters, so it’s hardly worth the bother. Even if Apple, say, delivered a credible 3D solution without the need for glasses, I don’t think it would make a huge difference in the format’s popularity.

I suppose Apple could do something to deal with the generally awful TV sound quality. But solutions of that sort can become expensive. The Bose VideoWave II set, with an embedded tricked out audio system, starts at $4,999 for a 46-inch model, meaning you are paying over $4,000 just for the audio. That’s too high-end.

My theory is still about an enhanced Apple TV, one that could manage all your peripherals, including the cable/satellite connection, Blu-ray player, gaming console, and audio system. Content would be easy to manage, regardless of the source, without having to put up with this nonsense about handling multiple remotes or a flaky universal remote to switch connections. It should just work.

You see, the TV itself seems to work just fine as it is; by itself, that is. But once we got past the basic channels 2 through 13, things got way out of hand. Apple should be the company to simplify things, even if the cable and satellite companies have to be brought kicking and screaming to the table. Besides, many already have iOS and Android apps, so it hardly seems much of a stretch to turn it all over to Apple and let them figure out how to sort things out.

The other question is when Apple’s solution might appear. Will you see that as one of the cutting-edge product innovations expected from Apple this fall, or are those hardware rollouts just going to involve refreshed iPhones and iPads and, of course, the new Mac Pro?

Aside from replacing the remote, can the current Apple TV be updated to support all or most of the new features? Will third parties be allowed to build apps for Apple TV? Will it partly depend on seamless integration with iOS and OS X?

Every time I read those statements from Tim Cook that he feels he’s going back in time when he uses his TV, I have to wonder what changes need to be made, beyond the awkward process of dealing with multiple devices. There are no doubt other answers, and maybe some will be obvious when and if we get closer to the rollout of Apple’s hoped for solution.