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Revisiting Apple TV Myths and Reality

The world wonders — or maybe a few people wonder — where’s the ultimate TV interface that Steve Jobs allegedly developed in the final months of his life? According to his biographer, Walter Isaacson, Jobs boasted of cracking the code for the greatest TV interface ever, but nothing has come from this statement.

Except assumptions.

The first assumption was that Apple was working on a connected TV to compete with all those other connected TVs in Apple’s unique way. There have even been scattered reports about prototypes being tested, but that doesn’t mean anything is about to be released.

This year, the speculation is focusing more directly on the Apple TV box, and what the fourth generation version will be like. There’s even a supposed model designation embedded in iOS 7, but that doesn’t indicate what form it might take.

Of course, there are simple things Apple could do in order to upgrade the product. By adding more solid state storage to cache videos and an A7 processor that would, in theory, include support for Ultra HD, the Apple TV would remain at the cutting edge. The rest is all about the software, and that’s where the rubber meets the road, or something of that sort.

Up till now, Apple TV has gotten regular doses of new content. Indeed, when you turn it on, you might find the long list works against simplicity. Sure, it’s a lot less than you find on a Roku, but still. Besides, each of these channel apps has its own interface, more or less, which also works against the Apple approach. Clearly Apple didn’t intend to load up the thing with dozens and dozens of apps, and leave it to customers to sort things out. Yes, you can hide apps you don’t want, but that might be more trouble than it’s worth for most users.

There has to be an end game, you’d think.

A key problem with current smart TV sets, or even the Roku for that matter, is that all the content is not integrated into a simple form to make for easy discoverability of shows or movies you might want to watch. Cable and satellite DVRs use a fairly straightforward approach, a linear list of available channels — often mixed with channels you haven’t ordered to entice you to upgrade — along with a clumsy search feature.

So how does Apple solve the problem? And I haven’t begun to mention managing the accessories you add to your TV set, such as the Blu-ray player and the gaming console. But Apple usually wants to control the entire experience.

Some have suggested Apple wanted to get the content creators onboard for a special cloud-based subscription service. Indeed, it has been reported that Apple is building out a content delivery network, rather than rely on third party streaming services, such as Akamai, to do the heavy lifting.

But those content creators already have deals with existing cable and satellite companies, so they’d clearly be reluctant to grant Apple any special privileges. They might look at the way the music companies gave Apple want they wanted in the original iTunes deals, since they had no viable Plan B.

A more recent possibility is that an Apple TV might become the front end to existing cable/satellite services. There were reports Apple was close to a deal with Time Warner Cable, which already offers content via Roku. But Apple would no doubt want something more comprehensive, possibly providing the full user experience through a unique iOS-inspired interface.

Unfortunately, the proposed $45 billion all-stock deal, in which TWC would be acquired by Comcast, may put the kibosh on such an arrangement, or at least delay it. So where does Apple go next?

Well, there is a published report that the 2014 Apple TV will be launched in April. That seems to make sense, considering the timeframe in which earlier models were introduced. But the suggestion that the actual product won’t go on sale until the holiday season doesn’t pass the logic test. This is where journalists who pretend to understand Apple routinely fail. While it’s possible Apple would introduce a new Apple TV a few months in advance, that would also kill sales of the existing model. It would be more logical to just wait till the product is almost ready to ship.

The situation would be very unlike the Mac Pro, which was mostly a dead product before the 2013 revision was announced some six months before it went on sale. Remember, too, that the iPhone was announced months in advance because of pending FCC review, and no doubt because Apple needed something to introduce at the 2007 Macworld Expo keynote. Apple has since given up on participation at trade shows.

At the end of the day, though, media pundits are still talking about Apple trying to strike deals with the entertainment companies. But if the April release date is really set in stone, we’ll know soon enough a lot more about Apple’s TV solution.