The Apple TV as a console
April 19, 2011
Over the past couple days, we’ve seen considerable speculation about Apple’s involvement in television manufacturing; some wish to believe that Apple will delve into the TV production business, while others are critical in this regard. Others still are taking this opportunity to point out that doubting Apple’s entry in a given market has a poor track record, what with Apple having releasing the iPod, iPhone, iPod Touch, and Apple TV not long after pundits proclaimed these endeavors too risky, or too unlike Apple.
What’s certain, at least, is that Apple doubled down on their “hobby,” the Apple TV, when they released an iOS-based version costing just under a hundred bucks. The device is plug-and-play, easy-to-use, and is already offering alluring new features thanks to fancy licensing deals with Netflix, Major League Baseball, the NBA, et al. Indeed, the Apple TV is being positioned as an alternative to cable television, offering a consistent experience across markets that do not share the same cable provider. More importantly, the a la carte television and movie programming has gotten substantially better over time (addressing a chief complaint we’ve had with the Apple TV for years).
So Apple TV’s getting better, and that means Apple has an excellent weapon they can use to continue infiltrating an otherwise chaotic industry, offering a clean, consistent experience that potentially rivals the experience cable operators offer. Lessien believes that Apple can leverage apps, iAds, and subscriptions to even further promote the Apple TV, where apps pay homage to the living room gamer.
Apps, in particular games, give Apple an opportunity to extend their hugely successful mobile development platform into the living room. Low-priced apps, immediately downloadable, connected via GameCenter, controllable with iOS handheld devices just make sense. Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft should be nervous.
There’s still a question as to how apps will work on the Apple TV, because to date, third-party Apple TV apps have been part of official iOS updates, not voluntary installs from an Apple TV AppStore. And then, of course, are the issues with transforming the Apple TV into a console replacement.
What of the controller?
The Apple TV comes with a lone remote. It’s a nice, simplistic remote, and in no way capable of working as a good console controller. The notion of using iOS devices as controllers is a worthy one, with such functionality easily worked into Apple’s Remote app. But whether it can technically be done or not is hardly the issue. Rather, if Apple planned to situate the Apple TV as a console replacement, it wouldn’t drastically increase the adopter fee by requiring a controller purchase several times more than the cost of the Apple TV itself. While many people already have iOS devices they can use for this purpose, Apple won’t make that a requirement any more than they made having an iPhone a prerequisite for iPad cellular data service1.
The alternative to buying up older, second-hand iPhones and iPod Touches is simply buying a new iController that only runs the Apple Remote app, or perhaps runs a specific iController app that allows developers to create skin-able controller layouts for various games. The controller wouldn’t need an A5 processor, much storage, or RAM, and could rely purely on bluetooth for connectivity. With a gyroscope for added functionality, this iController could probably come in at a reasonable price-point, so families could pick up an Apple TV, two iControllers, and a multi-iController charging dock for under 200 bucks.
Such an iController would clearly be wireless, and would have a sufficient battery life for prolonged gaming sessions. But, without tactile feedback, and being limited to virtual buttons on the device face, there’s an obvious question of how capable the device would be compared to the multi-button monstrosities that modern gaming controllers have become. That’s not to say that a simpler, more polished interface isn’t an attractive proposal, but this could be considered a major flaw when compared to consoles whose controllers offer a button for every conceivable action in a given game; Apple TV games may inherently need to be simpler.
The only other option is let the Apple TV interface with bluetooth-enabled gaming controllers of a more conventional form, but this then becomes a contrary force to the multitouch philosophy that Apple has pushed for iOS. In order for Apple to remain consistent in this regard, we see it challenging devices like the Wii, but not button-heavy consoles like the XBox 360 and Playstation 3. Ultimately, if the Apple TV is to compete in the console wars, it needs to find a way to offer the same titles that other consoles do, and that means offering a controller scheme that’s not weaker in comparison.
What of the storage?
The Apple TV doesn’t have a lot of storage. In fact, it’s designed to stream content, not download it. So when we talk of games, anything substantial is no longer a possibility. Yes, Apple could allow the attachment of an external hard-drive, but now we’re again pumping up the cost of the device and making it less accessible. If Apple decided to increase the Apple TV’s storage, we could get away with simpler, casual games, but to truly compete with the big boys, we’d see games many gigs in size. That’s not to say that Apple couldn’t position the Apple TV as a casual-friendly console and compete exclusively with the Wii in this regard, but why limit market penetration to such a niche role?
The only other option is to stream video, and here, Apple may have a sound strategy. That is to say, Apple has already proven it can get content owners on board with its platform, as seen with record labels, movie studios, and TV broadcasters. So, if Apple decided to take on OnLive, and use the Apple TV to stream gaming video feeds, then storage isn’t an issue. However, this seems contrary to the AppStore ecosystem Apple has established to date, and makes rolling out a nation-wide, consistent experience difficult. That’s not to say such a move isn’t plausible, merely unlikely.
What of established iOS gaming?
With no clear solution to the problems of offering low-cost controllers and storage for the Apple TV, there’s nothing Microsoft and Sony need to worry about just yet2. Apple would likely do a much better job than OnLive for getting a streaming library of games available to a wide audience, but the technology here is still too young for widespread adoption. Apple is better off focusing on how they can situate the Apple TV as an every-man device, and look to entering the set-top console fray at a later date.
Where traditional gaming companies need to watch out is Apple’s continued domination of the mobile space. Technologies like AirPlay, or even video-out adapters, may well serve gamers to stream iPhone and iPad gaming to the big-screen, and this is where we expect to see additional innovation. Why tack on additional costs to the Apple TV by offering new controllers, or muse about potential storage solutions, when we already have capable storage on existing iOS devices?
The Apple TV doesn’t need gaming apps, it simply needs to present the apps already on our iOS devices to the big-screen. Everyone thinks the Apple TV could be another platform for Apple to push, but its true strength is in acting as a bridge between our existing Apple devices and the television. Just as it already streams music, photos, and video from our devices, the Apple TV could be leveraged to present a gaming experience served up from these same devices. The issue then is not adding controllers and storage to the Apple TV, but adding an Apple TV to our iPhones, iPads, and Macs.
The iPad today can leverage an iPhone’s data plan thanks to hotspot access, but this wasn’t always the case. It seemed logical that Apple might not include a cellular data feature native to the iPad when the iPad was first unveiled, because Apple might want to sell consumers two devices, or somehow reward existing Apple customers. But Apple clearly wanted to sell the iPad to consumers who didn’t have the iPhone, as the device would undoubtedly be attractive to people who were not AT&T subscribers, or simply had no need for a smartphone. ↩
Nintendo ought be uniquely worried, but mainly from the perspective of being hammered on the mobile front because they refuse to fully acknowledge the strength of indy developers, and how low-cost bulk sales can make up for higher-cost titles that sell much less copies. As far as consoles go, however, Nintendo’s strength lies in a gryoscope-based Wii with much less horsepower under the hood than the XBox 360 or Playstation 3. In other words, it wouldn’t take exceptional effort for Apple to challenge the Wii outright if they wanted to, though the timing is poor (Nintenod’s Wii successor can’t be far off from being announced.) ↩