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Is the Apple TV Growing on You?

While a figure of 13 million sales for a single product would be a huge deal for most tech companies, to Apple, that number, tallied over the six-year life of the Apple TV, means it’s still just a hobby. True, more than half of those sales occurred in the past year, which means that it is becoming a very popular hobby. After all, it wasn’t so many years ago that six million sales of new Macs in a single year was a huge deal.

In any case, Apple remains coy about the Apple TV end game. Some choose to predict there will be a full-fledged TV set of some sort, focusing on Apple technologies and seamless integration of all your devices. Well, at least the devices that have the Apple logo on them. It remains to be seen how such a gadget would integrate with a Blu-ray player, DVR, gaming console, or a surround sound audio system.

However, it’s clear that Apple TV is slowing getting better, at least when it comes to content offerings.

So this week, Apple added five more dedicated channels that include Vevo, a music video site, Disney Channel, Disney XD, Weather Channel, and Smithsonian Channel. All right, maybe not so compelling. But in June, Apple pushed out HBO Go, WatchESPN, Sky News, CrunchyRoll and Quelle. Add to that the previous offerings, including Hulu Plus, Netflix, some sports channels, Vimeo, YouTube, Flickr and the Wall Street Journal.

What’s more, the new apps, or channels, generally don’t require downloading a software update. They just appear the next time you access your Apple TV.

But it was never just about iTunes, although that service still remains first among equals. To be sure, iTunes remains a compelling competitor to the standard Pay Per View fare from your cable or satellite provider. Indeed, when I’m faced with the choice of choosing the former or the latter, I tend to select iTunes, unless DirecTV has a special offer for a particular movie. And don’t forget AirPlay.

There’s also a published report that Apple is trying to entice Time Warner Cable to join the crowd. And bear in mind that some of the existing Apple TV channels, such as Disney and HBO Go, require that you authenticate as a subscriber to a supported cable or satellite service. So if Apple is already dealing with them, might as well include dedicated apps for the carriers too, right?

If that happens, it would make Apple TV a dead-on competitor to TiVO, as a third-party aggregator of your cable or satellite provider’s content. While it’s reported that the carriers are being stubborn about signing deals with Apple, it would seem to me they benefit. After all, they keep their customers regardless, but it would also mean that they’d have to establish cloud-based storage systems to replace the DVR, which uses local hard drives to store the shows you’ve recorded.

Sure, maybe Apple wants to use iCloud to store all that content, but that would also mean the content delivery systems would have to allow Apple to manage that programming. Possible? It might still require reworking deals with the TV networks. It’s all so complicated.

Meantime, it’s clear Apple is testing the waters by making Apple TV more and more indispensable as a part of your entertainment diet. But, as some have suggested, Apple is still playing second fiddle to the cable or satellite company, assuming you’re not a cord cutter. How does Apple work around that problem? One way would be to organize Apple TV as a central hub that would manage all your connected TV peripherals. Another would, naturally, require apps for your cable or satellite company.

Yes, I realize Apple is also rumored to be working on their own TV subscription service. But that would require a new set of complicated agreements, and it would seem that they’d want to do it in a way that improves upon the current DVR paradigm. Can they unbundle? The cable and satellite companies and the networks still haven’t worked out a feasible way to make that happen.

Yes, it would be nice to just tell them that you want a dozen channels, free and premium, and that’s all you have to pay for. But that also means that hundreds of other channels, which now vie for your attention, never get a chance to shine. Quite often they are discovered randomly from an online listing, TV Guide,  your local paper, or just surfing the channel guide. But if you can’t pick from a diet of loads of channels, you won’t stumble upon them. Many networks that today get decent audiences would remain undiscovered. So maybe bundling is the better way, assuming both sides aren’t too greedy.

Besides, however Apple continues to manage Apple TV content, it doesn’t eliminate the possibility of a smart TV set. But that’s a market far more saturated than digital music players, smartphones and tablets before Apple got involved. I still think all or most of what an Apple TV can do doesn’t require creating and selling the whole widget. But that won’t stop the speculation.