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The Slow Apple TV Invasion

Apple’s hobby, the Apple TV, made an inauspicious debut back in 2007. At first, it was mostly a way to store your digital content from iTunes on a built-in hard drive, and play that content on your TV. To Apple, the new gadget was little more than a hobby. The first version, closely resembling the Mac mini of that timeframe, contained a 40GB hard drive with which to store you content; a 160GB version arrived two months later.

But, as I said, most people probably didn’t notice. Things began to change in September 2010, when a new, cheaper version was announced. Sporting a tiny black case with curved edges, the new Apple TV was about one-fourth the size of the original, and, at $99, a third of the price. More to the point, this was a clear harbinger to the future, since it used internals that were reminiscent of an iPhone, not to mention running a special version of iOS.

The new Apple TV wasn’t designed to store much data. There was 8GB onboard flash storage to provide a decent buffer for streaming content, but there was no way to actually store that content. Apple also provided a smattering of content services in addition to iTunes, including Netflix. With the introduction of AirPlay, you could use an Apple TV to stream content from your IOS device or Mac to your TV. This was yet another way to transition you to Apple’s expansive ecosystem.

Today’s Apple TV isn’t altogether different. It has a more powerful processor, with support for 1080p video. Apple continues to regard it as a hobby, but Tim Cook nonetheless recently admitted that the company has a “grand vision” to conquer your living room. Meantime, sales are increasing. Of 13 million, according to Cook, half were tallied in the past year.

The conventional wisdom had it that Apple planned to eventually deliver a connected TV of some sort, and some even use the iTV designation, although that trademark is identified with a British TV network. It’s not as if the present iTV would be willing to surrender that name, even if Apple waves a huge paycheck in front of them. So maybe it’ll be a variation on the Apple TV theme.

Another possibility is that Apple is going to revolutionize your TV experience with a souped up version of the set top box. But it may also be possible for Apple to take a stealthy approach, and gradually make the Apple TV an indispensable companion without changing the hardware.

How so? Well, with content mostly. The offerings have expanded over time. In addition to sports networks, you have Hulu Plus, a service that focuses mostly on TV network fare. Just recently, Apple added HBO Go, which allows you to watch your favorite HBO movies and TV shows, such as “Game of Thrones,” “True Blood, and “The Newsroom.” All right, I’m sold.

Now at first, some cable and satellite customers were unable to use their accounts with HBO Go, but that’s being remedied as we speak. I’m already able to login with my DirecTV account.

Coming later this year is the CW network, owned by CBS and Time Warner, which caters in programming for a somewhat younger demographic, and features such fare as the action drama “Arrow,” based on the “Green Arrow” DC comic book, and “The Vampire Diaries.”

There’s also a published report that Apple is in heavy negotiations with Time Warner Cable to bring their content to the Apple TV. If that happens, you can bet that other cable and satellite providers will be rushing to get with the program. What this means is that customers of Time Warner and other services may be able to dispense with their clumsy set top boxes and watch their shows via Apple’s elegant interface. Maybe. That depends on how the content delivery services handle time shifting.

Right now, most services simply use a DVR, with a big hard drive, to store the shows you want to record. Since Apple TV only offers a buffer for streaming, is there another solution? Sure, the cloud. The content services could simply stream the content you’ve selected for recording direct from their networks via an on-demand scheme. But that solution may be troublesome if it counts against your ISP’s bandwidth cap. But if you already subscribe to the broadband provider that delivers your TV service, it won’t be a problem. If you don’t, or use a satellite provider, you might have a problem if you’re a voracious TV watcher.

Now I suppose one possible workaround would be to design an Apple TV with a coax port that would hook up direct to your cable or satellite provider. You’d retrieve content same as you do now with your DVR, direct from the provider’s own network. But that solution would require replacing your Apple TV, unless Apple could provide some sort of interface adapter that taps your cable or satellite connection directly when you’re using their app. An updated Apple TV would allow for a direct hookup.

Possible? I suppose. Meantime, if the story about adding Time Warner to the Apple TV is accurate, you may wake up one day and find out that Apple’s TV revolution is already here. Only you didn’t notice.