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Can Apple Save Apple TV?

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
Yahoo Tech

(Photo by Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech)

The Apple TV has had its problems over the years, but a dizzying pace of updates isn’t one of them.

In its eight years of existence, this compact media player’s hardware has seen only one major revision so far, and that was in 2010. Its size, shape, and remote control haven’t changed since, although Apple has issued two minor updates — the last two and a half years ago

Over the same period of time, Roku released two more generations of its streaming media player, plus multiple software updates; Google released its Chromecast HDMI dongle; and Amazon introduced the Fire TV settop and the Fire TV stick. 

While Apple has moved a ton of these things — 25 million, CEO Tim Cook bragged in March — its sales have slid, despite Apple cutting the price from $99 to $69 last April. The market research firm Parks Associates reported last month that the Apple TV had fallen to fourth place after Roku, Google, and Amazon’s streaming-media players.  

After years of hitting the pause button on what Steve Jobs used to call “a hobby,” Apple looks like it’s finally willing to press fast-forward on streaming media devices. 

Along with new iPhones and iPads, a redesigned Apple TV is expected to be announced at Apple’s Wednesday morning event in San Francisco. The new boxes are likely to include their own App Store, the ability to search across multiple services, and a revamped remote that lets you control the device with your voice using Siri.

Those all strike me as great ideas. But they still might not be enough to convince Apple TV holdouts like me to buy one.

How open will the App Store be? 

When Apple replaced its 2007 incarnation with a streaming-first model in 2010, the thing it needed most of all was a way to add popular channels and other content. Instead, Apple has added sites and services to the Apple TV’s list with an annoying inscrutability. It’s as if Jack Black’s hipster record-store clerk from the movie “High Fidelity” were choosing what you could and couldn’t watch  based on his own eclectic tastes.

For example, today’s selection includes the Japanese anime site crunchyroll, but not Amazon’s video on demand or Sling TV. You can rock out to the concert archive at Qello, but not Pandora or Spotify. You can use AirPlay to beam those music services’s apps to an Apple TV, but that’s just not as convenient as picking up the Apple TV remote and selecting an onscreen app the way you can with other streaming media boxes.

(Disclosure: Yahoo Tech’s parent company has two apps, Yahoo Screen and Flickr, on the Apple TV menu. If you didn’t notice them among the current interface’s clutter, we forgive you.)

We trust that the new Apple TV’s App Store will let competing services plug those gaps. But what if an app provides an alternative to a core Apple TV function? Given how fiercely Apple protects its own turf when it comes to iPhone, iPad, and now Apple Watch apps, it seems likely some developers will be turned away.

One key test case will be Plex, the app Roku and smart-TV users rely on to play music and video stored on their PCs. So far, you could only get Plex to work on an Apple TV via a tricky workaround to fake out the movie-trailers app. If a Plex Apple TV app gets rejected for competing with the Apple TV’s core function of streaming media from iTunes libraries, I will be disappointed, but I won’t be shocked.

Third-party apps may also find themselves locked out of some features Apple reserves for its own apps, in much the same way that Google’s new iOS Android Wear app can’t do most of what’s routine on Android phones.

A better menu should be on the menu

Managing the current set of apps is bad enough, even after Apple added the ability to hide or rearrange apps (except for the first four, Apple-provided ones, which aren’t going anywhere). There’s still a lot of scrolling up and down with the remote control or the much more useful Remote iOS app, and you can only conduct searches inside individual apps.

The rumors about Wednesday’s news point to Apple emphasizing voice search by Siri. That will solve the problem of finding things — you should be able to say “Office Space” and see which streaming services have the greatest movie ever made about IT work — but it won’t fix Apple TV’s browsing problem.

Some sort of favorites or home screen would help. But if the new Apple TV looks anything like the iOS home screen — where the software fills any open spaces by pulling over apps from the next screen instead of letting you pick what you want — that won’t help much.

I’d also like to see the option to delete some of them of the pre-installed apps. But since iOS offers no such thing, I doubt it’s coming to the new Apple TV either.

A few more things…

Other features fall more into nice-to-have territory. For example, while much of the fare on a streaming-media box isn’t live, the transition to Internet viewing doesn’t totally banish appointment viewing. Why not have the option of asking apps to remind you of an upcoming event like a baseball game a few minutes before it starts?

That would be especially useful in cord-cutting services like the $20-per-month Sling TV or the subscription-TV service Apple is working on, which now apparently won’t appear until 2016.

Apple TV owners had ideas of their own when I asked for suggestions on Twitter. I like the idea of being able to monitor and control household devices connected through Apple’s HomeKit software, and I’m not alone in that view. Two people put in a request for 4K Ultra High Definition video, but it seems that’s not coming this year and may not for a few more — remember, Apple didn’t add 1080p high-definition video until 2012, years after it became standard on most HDTVs.

Finally, a look at my own coffee table reminded me of one more thing Apple could do to improve the next Apple TV: Put a volume button on the remote, so we don’t need to grab another one every time the sound’s too loud or too quiet.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.