Here’s why Apple didn’t open up Apple TV

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There were plenty of rumors ahead of today’s WWDC keynote that Apple would announce some kind of update to its Apple TV platform. And while pundits have long been speculating about the launch of a full-blown TV set, the latest round of rumors was centered around a different step: that Apple would open up the Apple TV and give third-party developers access to its SDK, allowing them to build and distribute apps for the device. But none of that happened. Apple TV remains closed, with access to a limited number of partner apps. And there’s a good reason for it.

You see, app platforms are fundamentally a numbers game. Apple CEO Tim Cook made as much clear when he boasted about the latest iOS numbers early on during the keynote, stating that there are now 650,000 iOS apps out there. Out of those, 225,000 have been specifically designed for the iPad – something he contrasted with “just a few hundred” apps for Android tablets.

There are two reasons for this, and one is not quite as obvious. Of course, there are many more iPads out there, making it a much more desirable platform to develop for. But iOS and Android also treat apps fundamentally different. Android apps scale gracefully to bigger screen sizes, making it possible to use many apps that were originally designed for phones on tablets as well. Apple, on the other hand, only offers users the little-loved 2x view of an iPhone app, with results in many cases that are pretty ugly. That’s done on purpose: Developers are forced to build native iPad apps if they want to be used on the tablet. The carrot for this stick is the iPad’s huge user base.

But in the TV space, Apple has a much smaller installed base. Sure, Apple TVs sell pretty well. Cook recently said that the company sold 2.7 million units in six months, which is more than any of its competitors in the smart TV companion box space. But it’s a far cry from the 40.5 million iPads the company sold in 2011. And a smaller device footprint equals less money and opportunities for developers.

This is where we get back to the screen scaling. Google TV has sold far fewer devices than Apple – the latest number suggest that there are less than one million Google TV devices in use. However, the platform is based on Android, so users can still access thousands of Android apps, which gracefully scale up to the big screen. Apple on the other hand would start out with much smaller numbers, and essentially be where Android tablets are today – which is not a place the company wants to be in.

Sure, one could argue that developers would nonetheless jump on the opportunity and build their own apps for the platform, just to be there when it grows up. But for that, Apple would have to give them some guidance and show where it wants to go with Apple TV. Is it an accessory, an Airplay receiver? Or will it evolve into a full-fledged TV platform, complete with its own TV set and access to premium content?

The latest Apple TV UI upgrade didn’t seem to suggest much room for innovation, or even additional apps, for that matter. To become relevant, Apple would have to think big, and not just in terms of screen size. Simply opening up the SDK for the current-generation platform wouldn’t cut it. Apple knows that, and it simply didn’t want to bother with small numbers.

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