Rumors have teased at the notion that, since the acquisition of Beats by Apple TV that this is it, the next big change for Apple. Many have speculated that this could be the beginning of the machinations that will produce the long-awaited actual television set and not merely the streaming media player that competes so directly against Chromecast, Netflix, Hulu and Roku.
In true Jobs fashion, Apple’s scheduled events at the Worldwide Developers Conference in May 2014 published a syllabus rife with session titles that read like teasers. Attendees met at “We Have to Keep This Quiet Still” and covered “Bet You Can’t Wait to Know” itinerary, serving to do what Apple4 does better than music, computing and telecommunications combined–create buzz in the industry.
While the big reveal of an actual, working television set may be unlikely this year, 2013 was big for the present streaming media player on offer from Apple. Introduced as a “hobby” project from the technology giant in 2006, Apple TV has been growing steadily since its conception. Today, the service has earned $1 billion in gross revenue, says Apple CEO Tim Cook, and growth looks likely for the utility in the future as well.
Apple TV offers viewers access to the top-rated streaming sites on the web. Apple TV enables seamless access to popular channels, sites and subscriptions outside of those programs and movies offered by just Hulu Plus and Netflix (which are also accessible using the iPhone maker’s hub). HBO Togo, the History Channel, Disney, major sports networks such as MLB or NFL, and social media such as YouTube and Flickr are all accessible via the iTV.
A very cross-promotional service, Apple TV also offers music, movies and TV shows via the iTunes marketplace, all accessible within the streaming media interface. This mesh of products and endorsements can be confusing for those who are used to Netflix or Hulu, two services that are strictly about the movies and whose navigation and recommendations pages are very accessible and user friendly. Hulu offers movie and video game trailers alongside movie and TV show titles, but that is about as off-topic from motion picture media as the service gets.
Channels and services like those found on Netflix are not all that the little black box from Apple offers, either. Apple TV furnishes streaming for the device via Airplay, making any content that is accessible via a user’s Mac computer or iOS device also viewable on a TV screen. This Apple TV feature teases at other applications and big possibilities opened up by this sharing, such as playing apps and games on a user’s big screen TV via the iPad. Users have the potential to share photos, home movies, personal music collections, and so much more using AirPlay.
Apple TV is not new, but the service is gaining momentum at a time when pricing and availability have rendered traditional network programming practices obsolete. Television channel subscriptions have dropped in number by 6 percent since 2010, while streaming services have grown 4 percent, according to global information company NDP. This is not surprising, however, considering that YouTube has shaped the largest demographic of television viewers programming habits over the course of the last decade. Today, more adults aged 18-34 watch YouTube than any cable TV networks.
As changes in broadcasting shape traditional networks, more and more channels offer streaming videos online. Better than half of viewers streaming TV regularly fall into that 18-34 demographic, showing an evolution from “short-form and user-generated content” to TV shows that can be accessed seamlessly across devices and without the restriction of scheduling. Many of these programs are shows which were aired on television as scheduled, but are available to view online at a viewer’s convenience. There is a genuine shift in media toward convenience and flexibility in end-user appliance, and services such as Apple TV are taking this into consideration as executives plan what’s next.
Although a substantial amount of media is viewed via mobile devices, over half of users report using mobile devices in addition to desktops in order to stream media. Efforts have been made, therefore, to incorporate the best of both worlds via smart TV technology and streaming media. A whopping 83 percent of free-to-stream media, such as footage from sites like ABC, Fox and NBC, CBS and CWTV, are played on a computer or smart TV following the show’s immediate air date.
This tidbit teases at a truth Apple would be tapping into should the big media mogul shift toward the development of the world’s smartest smart TV–people bond over such pastimes as television watching and renting movies. The act of watching television together qualifies, for many families, as “spending time together.” With a wealth of programming available today, the appeal of streaming media is obvious to manufacturers like Apple. They know users want to go through phases in TV programs, binge watch, revisit outdated programs at will, and also be able to view the most recent episodes of popular television shows without delay. It is hypothesized that Apple is well aware of these growing trends in viewer habits, and developers are anticipating this need with further improvements to the existing (and future) Apple TV.
It has been argued that Apple TV is a dud. This, however, seems to be an example of modern media’s favorite Apple-related activity (the kids refer to it as “hating”). Time and time again, the media, economists and reviewers have predicted the demise of Apple. While the developer may never be able to capture the former glory of the iPhone’s release, Apple continues to produce amazing products that challenge and advance technology and consumers today.
The notion that Apple TV is all washed up does not stand to reason in light of available facts. Amazon’s streaming media/rental tool, Amazon Prime, is another good example of a service that is not steamrolling competition, but also holds its own among a dedicated consumer demographic. Commercial successes such as Apple and Amazon have enough equity in other investments (such as Apple’s computer sales and portable device development, or Amazon’s ebook franchise and success as the world’s largest online retailer) to merely dabble in streaming media and continue to earn a profit. Fortune Magazine reports that Apple has seen 100 percent revenue growth in app sales for the past two years running. These companies can both reap sizable benefits for each service without having to invest into premiere new shows or instant availability, as cousins Netflix and Hulu have fought to achieve in order to remain competitive.
Neither service is nearly as affordable as either Hulu Plus or Netflix (or both, for that matter, considering that a huge draw to using Apple TV is having access to the each of the leading streaming media sites on one device). The advantages of using an Apple TV device are impressive, nonetheless.
Some such advantages to using the service include the notion that any Apple mobile device can act as a remote and virtual magic wand, bringing a user’s media together onto one screen or, conversely, sending them to another. Apple Remote allows users to search for and play music and movies on any Apple TV-connected device or Mac computer. Using the feature, living rooms can be transformed into wireless home theaters and direct different content to individual speakers or rooms using the Apple Remote.
Versions of Apple TV generation 2 and older can sell for more than the third generation models, largely because these versions of the black box can be “jailbroken”. An Apple TV device that has been jailbroken can make use of apps and streaming services that Apple typically does not allow. Services like PlexConnect, AirFlick or VLC offer owners of third gen TVs the opportunity to stream media of any file format. For viewers who subscribe to TiVo, the digital video recorder that took television by storm in 1999, these subscribers are able to store and access pre-recorded programming onto a Macintosh device. Using Airplay, these presentations are viewable across iOS devices.
Apple TV’s latest update is tentatively due out in fall of 2014, around the time of Apple’s late quarter Keynote Address. The most recent update to Apple TV, reported June 17, says families of up to six will soon be able to share content such as apps, films, and ebooks, as well as videos, photos, and productivity tools using Apple’s iCloud. This big update, called Family Sharing, is currently unavailable, but helps to fuel whispers and tease audiences about the next big thing to come in Apple TV. These and other advancements all suggest that Apple TV will continue to expand, in keeping with the entertainment juggernaut’s efforts to the further infiltrate the streaming media marketplace.
Opinion by Mariah Beckman