There’s increasing evidence that Apple’s(s AAPL) March 7 event will bring not only an update to Apple’s iPad tablet, but also to its Apple TV streaming box. With inventory winding down and new Apple TV units not expected in stores again until March 8, there has been an uptick in rumors that the streaming box will receive updated hardware as well. But it seems also more than just a coincidence to me that these two products could both be announced at the same event, and I believe it’s likely that the next versions of the Apple TV and iPad will have deep integration for developers to take advantage of.
Compared to rumors swirling around the next-generation iPad, expectations for the Apple TV are relatively muted. That said, there’s already been some discussion about what we can expect from the new hardware, which has not been updated since Fall 2010. Zatz Not Funny! has a pretty extensive list of possible features for the next-generation Apple TV. I’d bet that the upgraded box will probably come with a new chipset, which could give the Apple TV the ability to deliver crisper 1080p HD video, which is an upgrade from the current 720p that it displays. But a new chip could also add the extra horsepower necessary for enabling a more robust app ecosystem.
The opening up of Apple TV to third-party developers will be key to increasing adoption of the platform, and could serve as an entry-point for Apple to enter the TV market in earnest. Apple is reportedly working on an actual HDTV, which would put it up against consumer electronics manufacturers like Samsung, Sony(s SNE) and LG. Creating a robust and open app ecosystem for the Apple TV prior to the release of such a product could give consumers a reason to actually buy an Apple-branded HDTV set.
More importantly, updating the platform for third-party app developers opens the door for more integrated and converged applications between Apple’s various services, mobile devices and its streaming box.
Here are a few of the things I’d expect to see from a converged mobile-and-TV app ecosystem:
Better control and navigation. Oh, and Siri
You can already control the Apple TV through your iPhone or iPad using the Apple Remote app. But other than providing better text input when you search for a title, the app does little more today than act as a replacement for the physical Apple TV remote. The big problem in the current Apple TV user experience is that you must navigate to the home screen to switch between apps or pick new content whenever you want to “change channels.”
By connecting mobile devices to the control mechanism of the Apple TV, however, users could theoretically browse, search and discover content through apps on the second-screen device — all while content continues to play on-screen. There’s also the opportunity to link Siri’s voice search capabilities to the control mechanism, which could reduce the amount of text input or manual browsing necessary when looking for a certain title. This was already foretold by the New York Times months ago, but it could finally fall into place if the two platforms converge.
True second-screen interactivity. Also, interactive ads?
Today’s second-screen apps are a mess. Most that try to provide a richer interactive experience to viewers while they are watching certain types of content require some sort of manual check-in before they can offer up additional multimedia content. It’s a laborious process for users and for content owners alike.
But what if those apps on the mobile device were tied directly into the apps on the streaming box? That would enable an app maker like HBO, for instance, to provide pop-up or push notifications to the iPad with behind-the-scenes footage or more detailed background information on characters in series like Game of Thrones or True Blood. HBO experimented with that sort of interactivity in its browser-based Game of Thrones streams last year and is looking to enable similar functionality in its iPad app for Season 2. This is one way to do so without taking up too much TV screen real estate or disrupting the viewing experience.
That kind of convergence could also enable interactive, second-screen ads to be built. To many marketers, being able to reach consumers on the second-screen device that they’re looking at while ignoring the ads on TV is kind of the holy grail for the next generation of converged applications. They love the idea of having a call-to-action appear on a touch-enabled computing device that can lead consumers deeper down the sales funnel, offer up special deals or coupons and provide more information about products they’re hawking.
Frankly, Apple has never been great at the ad game — just look at the iAds debacle for proof of that. But as long as it doesn’t try to control the interactive ad ecosystem — instead, enabling standards and best practices to emerge around its converged TV and mobile platform — it could prove invaluable to content partners and marketers alike.
Gaming, with your iDevice as a controller
One of the possible features that Zatz Not Funny! suggests is the release of a gaming controller akin to the one that comes with the high-end Roku 2 XS model. But the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad, with their accelerometers and touch controls, could take the place of the gaming remote. There are already some apps that take advantage of this type of functionality — but with the ability to beam the action to the biggest screen in the house, Apple could open up a whole new genre of gaming.
Much will depend on the processing power of the new Apple TV — but assuming it’s powerful enough, porting games like Grand Theft Auto 3 could be a huge win for game developers. There’s also the possibility of enabling board games like Scrabble, or card games like poker, to use the TV as the game board while putting individual playing pieces on user’s mobile devices.
Only Apple knows what the future holds
Of course, we’ll have to wait until next week to see what Apple truly has in store for the next Apple TV. But with Samsung getting serious about converged mobile-TV applications on the next generation of its connected TVs and tablets, as well as Microsoft’s(s MSFT) addition of voice and gesture controls through Xbox Live and Kinect (not to mention its integration of Xbox Live into Windows Phone devices), it seems the perfect time for Apple to make a bold move toward iOS platform convergence.