Apple’s invite for its event next week was pretty explicit: “It’s been far too long”. Now, this could refer to a couple of Apple product lines re-emerging or merging – an iPad Air Mini perhaps? – but Apple's TV plans are long overdue a refresh by this point, too. The big question is: are we going to see an evolutionary update of the set-top, or a full-scale upgrade of Apple’s most overlooked product?
Option 1: The Straightforward Upgrade
The safest (and lamest) bet is probably on a slightly updated version of Apple’s current TV: that is, a box that sits under your existing flatscreen, mirrors your iOS devices, and streams videos. An upgrade would see the guts improved to handle more complicated apps, and possibly add the capability to play iOS games on the big screen.
That would be the easiest, simplest and lowest-risk option for Apple. It would undoubtedly still sell a bunch of revamped, affordable boxes, which are far more popular than many realise, keeping it relevant in an era of cut-price Chromecasts and EE TVs. But it wouldn’t give existing Apple TV owners a reason to upgrade, or push fence-sitting consumers over the edge.
Option 2: The Smart Home Hub
The most likely-looking upgrade at this stage is one that puts Apple front and centre of the connected home market. Apple quietly introduced HomeKit with iOS 8, its vision of a connected future. Since then, there had been very little movement on that front – until this recent beta update. Could Apple be ready to wow the world with a more fleshed-out vision for a smart home, with Apple TV as the central hub?
In theory, most of the changes to make the Apple TV a smart home would come in the form of software updates. As most smart home accessories tend to connect over Wi-Fi, the Apple TV in its current incarnation already has the ability to talk to them – it just needs the smarts to understand what all those smart lightbulbs are going on about.
In addition to HomeKit stuff, Apple could also unveil a new generation of video-streaming capabilities. When asked about Apple’s foray into the TV market back in 2012, Cook said that Apple “doesn’t do hobbies”, and that he wants to “control the key technology”.
Assuming that the TV content itself is the “key technology” in TV, it’s possible that Apple is readying some kind of Netflix-esque streaming rival, or even planning to buy someone out wholesale like it did with Beats Electronics. After all, it already has pre-existing relationships in place with most media providers, thanks to iTunes; it’s shown an interest in streaming media, through iTunes Radio and Dre and co; and it has the industry pull to create a genuine contender.
Option 3: The iTV
Well, it probably won't be called that for obvious, potentially hilarious legal reasons, but rumours of an Apple-branded telly set have been floating around the internet for years – and the aforementioned Apple invite has just sent them into overdrive. Even seemingly humdrum commercial deals to package in Apple set-tops with Philips TVs at retail have provoked the cry of "partnership".
On the face of it, an Apple TV makes some semblance of sense: a flagship, iMac-esque, Apple-branded Ultra-HD TV, with all the capabilities of the current set-top box (iOS mirroring, streaming your iTunes library, a bunch of streaming-video apps), and a heap of new content deals in place? It could be a total killer for the living room, and you can picture it, pride of place, in an Apple Store.
On the other hand, TVs are probably the lowest margin item of electronics. The price of TVs has fallen precipitously over the last decade – mostly because TVs are more interchangeable than most other electronics. Whilst phones generally have a bunch of features that set them apart, TVs really have one – the screen, which has led to razor-thin margins. Coupled with the rise of tablets as the televisual centre of the family – cheers Apple – and this means that there’s not much incentive for anyone new to start bashing out tellies.
Of course, if anyone can shake the market up, it’s these guys. In theory, Apple has the purchasing power to be able to get components for cheaper than almost anyone else around – not to mention that if it managed to finally figure out the ‘Smart TV’ problem Apple might be able to convince consumers to part with great wads of cash, too. But again, an Apple TV would almost certainly have to retail for north of £1,500 to make it worthwhile for the firm, and would likely have much of its content focused on the US for the foreseeable, putting it out of the reach of most UK consumers.
Of course, there’s another reason to believe that this won’t be the year that Apple launches an entirely new product: it’s working flat-out on the Apple Watch. While it’s possible that it could release two new product lines in one year – there’s no doubt that it’s got the cash and resources to make it happen – Apple’s history suggests that new products will get spread out instead. But after the iPhone 6 Plus's break from tradition, maybe change is in the air.