Apple TV: Slow Occupation, Huge Potential

In 2007, Apple released the Apple TV as a way to stream or display digital media onto a television. At that time there were a number of similar devices that would display content onto a television, some home brewed through Windows Media Center or Linux, some using extensions and iPods, and others that had dedicated boxes, like the Western Digital Media Center. And Apple thought they would throw their hat into the ring, at least as a "hobby".

Since that day, more than half of all streaming boxes sold are Apple TVs. This quiet occupation of living rooms, offices, and dorm rooms has grown quite substantial, leading me to question just what Apple intends to do with this growth.

First, why has it grown? What is this interest in Apple hardware? Is it really because fanatics are only purchasing Apple stuff?

Well, partly. Apple has built their success around two credences: simplicity of use and a tightly-fit ecosystem. This credence builds satisfied customers who in turn become loyal to the brand. Therefore Apple's success is earned, not hood-winked.

Simplicity of use for the Apple TV means ease of setup, configuration, control (via remote, or iOS device), and all advanced services "just work". Setting up an Apple TV is as simple as signing in with your Apple ID (iTunes ID) and setting up the network. The Apple TV knows what you are trying to accomplish: sync your Apple TV with any Apple device sharing your content on the network and display it on the network. By plugging it into your TV via HDMI, it senses the resolution supported and adapts. Simple.

You then choose the language to use for your menus, and let the Apple TV scan for your wireless network. This isn't necessary if you are using an Ethernet connection, by the way. Enter in your authentication information for the Wireless network, and then select whether or not you want to provide diagnostic information from your Apple TV.

Now to access your content from your computer, sign in with your home sharing account (Apple ID). You will also need to enable home sharing in iTunes on your computer, in case you haven't already. Once done, you have access to all your iTunes music and video media from both your computer and from the iTunes Store for streaming.

For each application, like Netflix, Hulu Plus, etc., you would need to provide your own authentication information and sign in. Once done, those are now working too. Navigation to the apps, within the apps, and from the apps are pretty straightforward, requiring little navigation beyond a couple of clicks. My 3 year old son was able to find his favorite movie and start playing it on his own.

Now for the advanced things: AirPlay and AirPlay Mirroring. AirPlay is available on newer Mac computers and iOS devices, and will share playing media or even whole screens to a TV through the Apple TV. I've used this technique to play iPad games on the TV for the kids, and as a bigger screen when providing a demonstration. I've also used it to stream content from my iPad to the Apple TV from apps such as the History Channel app, Disney Junior app, and ABC or CBS apps.

Streaming is another great feature, that is streaming your purchased iTunes content directly from Apple's servers. Often I have found that purchasing content leads to lengthy downloads, but once purchased the content is available for streaming through the Apple TV. Therefore we were able to watch Disney's Brave before we had downloaded the movie.

So the easy setup, simple setup, and cool features that integrate the rest of the Apple ecosystem with the Apple TV is what has made it popular. And, with OS X Mavericks, the Apple TV can turn your HDTV into an independent monitor for your computer. It's definitely getting a lot of incidental love from developers that makes it a great tool.

So what is Apple going to do with it? Well, it runs on iOS, or at least a version of iOS, so more apps are inevitable. Already more content apps have added, from Netflix to Sky News. Slowly, content providers will see the Apple TV as an avenue for generating revenue, and then something wonderful will happen: Apple will set up an Apple TV App Store.

The App Store will probably start off as a "channel" store, with content providers each peddling their content, much like they do for free on the iPad and iPhone, and also provide their own commercials. Some providers, such as HBO, NBA, MLB, and NHL, have subscriptions for you to access their video content. So I see the Apple TV essentially becoming a "cable" provider, purely by virtue of users wanting to pay only for the content they want instead of bundles of channels they don't. I've called for this many a time in the past, and I can now see it happening.

But that's just phase one. Phase two will see games. Yes, games! The Apple TV has the necessary hardware to be a decent enough gaming system on it's own. I don't see it competing with the likes of the XBox or Playstation in horsepower, but I also see gaming taking a shift. It's started with indy games on mobile devices like the iPad and iPhone, and I see it just migrating to the Apple TV. More casual games will be on the menu, with several killer games like Infinity Blade showing up to show off the power of the Apple TV platform.

So, with this silent growth in the Apple TV marketshare, Apple is positioning itself for one killer device that can do so many different things, if they let it. Cable, at least for those who use the Apple TV, would be unnecessary (beyond Internet, of course), and gaming could be supplanted with this tiny footprint of a device.

Of course this idea isn't new: Roku is the other big device out there that is making strides, and already has more streaming content options then the Apple TV. It came in second for streaming box sales at 5 million, and Apple was first at 13 million.

For Apple TV owners, I see great things coming down the pipe. There is so much potential, it just depends on what, when, and how Apple does it.