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A brief history of Apple TV, from hobby to gaming machine

Examining Apple's complicated relationship with games and your TV

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Apple has a complicated relationship with your television. By its executives' own admission, the Cupertino company spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to take its expertise that you can find on your desk, your lap and between your hands and project it onto the biggest screen in your house.

But today, if the rumors are true, that might all change with the unveiling of a new, more powerful Apple TV, designed with video, apps and gaming at its core.

This shouldn't be surprising. Every big technology company wants in your living room. Microsoft entered that space with games, and it even refers to the Xbox One as an "all-in-one" system for controlling everything hooked up to your TV. Sony's making a play with PlayStation Vue. Even Nintendo had its efforts. The real estate is valuable, no matter what company bids for it.

Apple has never really been into games, at least on its computers. Long ago, it ceded the market to Microsoft. But it has a popular mobile gaming platform. And today, Apple's attitude might be about to change.

If the rumors are true, Apple's next move could represent an unmitigated shift for a company that's historically expressed little interest in gaming. Today, the rumors say, we'll see a new Apple TV.

To understand the new hardware, we need to first understand Apple — its motivations, its incentives, its potential. Once we've done that, we can examine the history of Apple TV. Armed with that context, the serious disruptive threat that Apple can pose to the gaming industry becomes clear.

When we look back, this could seem like a very big day.

UNDERSTANDING APPLE

You don't have to love Apple to understand Apple. And understanding Apple really isn't difficult. The culture of the company, with or without its late co-founder Steve Jobs, is happiest and at its best when it thinks it's changing the world.

The remarkable part about Apple is that it often succeeds. The Macintosh paved the way for the home PC and graphical user interface. The iPod made MP3 players mainstream. The iPhone ushered in the smartphone revolution.

None of these products were firsts. Apple usually doesn't do firsts. Its unique talents lie in identifying existing technology, imagining possibilities, distilling them to their essences and creating products designed for the masses.

Plenty of companies had the opportunity to make a product like the iPhone long before Apple. None did. By all accounts, the iPhone's unveiling gobsmacked BlackBerry creator RIM. Even Microsoft, which had long created smartphones with touchscreens, styluses and Start menus, would change course post-iPhone. Windows on a phone in 2015 is a finger-controlled descendant of the iPhone.

Since its founding, Apple has done this by being weird. It has always believed that, to create the best products, it had to build the hardware and the software that ran on it. This is a strategy unlike Microsoft, Samsung, Google or any of its biggest competitors. In the '80s and '90s, Apple's odd philosophy didn't seem to be working, at least financially. But by the 2000s, it proved its worth.

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007, saying that "only Apple" could do it, it seemed grandiose but at least defensible. Apple's deliberate weirdness made creating the hardware and software that ran the iPhone possible.

It's a sentiment that Jobs' successor, Tim Cook, echoes.

"Apple engineers platforms, devices, and services together," Cook said at Apple's 2014 Worldwide Developers Conference. "We do this so that we can create a seamless experience for our users that is unparalleled in the industry. This is something only Apple can do."

Reasonable people can disagree about whether "only Apple" can do those things, but that's less important than this: Apple believes it. And it operates, day by day, under that assumption. That culture allows Apple to dream big and, every few years, create remarkable things.

That said, the unremarkable part about Apple is that, even when it's not changing the world, it still acts like it is. (Hello, iPod Hi-Fi! Sure don't miss you, MobileMe!)

"We get it," some seem to think after Apple unveils a new product. "Your iPhone is 'unapologetically plastic.' Your watch band isn't rubber; it's fluoroelastomer. Maybe spare us the grandiosity."

This is a byproduct of a wildly successful company. It was weird in 1985, 1995, 2005 — and it remains so in 2015. But what was once kind of quirky and easy to dismiss is far more difficult to do now. The company that struggled after its founding and was 90 days from bankruptcy in the mid-'90s posts $18 billion profits in 2015.

So there's Apple in a nut: A company with a self-appointed mission to change the world, accompanied by the chutzpah to believe that it can and a track record that shows it often does.

Today, according to the rumors, Apple is going to set its sights on the TV. Again. But for real this time. Now that we understand Apple, we'll be able to understand its relationship with TV better.

Apple TV

Apple TV has been around for eight years, in three incarnations.

Steve Jobs unveiled the iTV in 2006. By the time it started shipping in 2007, a trademark dispute forced a name change to Apple TV.

original apple tv

The first-generation Apple TV was, more or less, a computer. The big, square gray box with rounded corners and a tiny plastic remote hooked up to your TV. At first, it required a computer and iTunes, from which you could transfer files large and small onto its internal hard drive. A software update later turned it into a stand-alone device. It lasted three years.

In 2010, Apple released the original device's successor. The new Apple TV was a significantly smaller, now-black box with rounded corners that supported 720p video. In 2012, Apple released the follow-up to that device. The current Apple TV looks identical to its predecessor, but its upgraded internals mean that it runs faster and supports 1080p.

For the last eight years, Apple TV has occupied a strange place in Apple's product line. It's never been a flagship product. In fact, Jobs was clear that the device was, at best, a "hobby." That's his word, and he used it several times to describe the product.

"I'm sure smarter people than us will figure this out, but that's why we say Apple TV is a hobby."

Why was it just a hobby, though? Because Apple couldn't figure out how to be revolutionary in that market, at least to its satisfaction.

"The problem with innovation in the TV industry is the go-to-market strategy," Jobs said in 2011 at D8. "The TV industry has a subsidized model that gives everyone a set-top box for free. So no one wants to buy a box. Ask TiVo, ask Roku, ask us … ask Google in a few months. The television industry fundamentally has a subsidized business model that gives everyone a set-top box, and that pretty much undermines innovation in the sector. The only way this is going to change is if you start from scratch, tear up the box, redesign and get it to the consumer in a way that they want to buy it. But right now, there's no way to do that ….The TV is going to lose until there's a viable go-to-market strategy. That's the fundamental problem with the industry. It's not a problem with the technology, it's a problem with the go-to-market strategy. … I'm sure smarter people than us will figure this out, but that's why we say Apple TV is a hobby."

Despite investors' calls for, and analysts' predictions of, a full TV set, Apple TV has been an optional way to get the content you purchase through iTunes onto your TV.

But, understanding Apple, it's also easy to see why the company believes it can make a valuable contribution. TV menus are ugly. The user experience is often clunky. Apple prides itself on design. Everybody has a TV. Why not make them better?

You could see this passion, plain as iOS icons, when Jobs revealed Apple TV's original remote. Some will look with admiration. Some will look and grab their eyes off the desk as they roll out of their heads. But, again, it's not about agreeing with the reverence with which Jobs treats a little remote control. It's about understanding why he — and by extension, Apple — gets so excited about this stuff.

THE NEXT APPLE TV

The central question for Apple is: What constitutes revolutionary? The answer lies in two parts: hardware and software. And Apple already has expertise in both.

The Hardware

On the hardware side, Apple has a clear advantage thanks to a related product, the iPhone.

Inside the Apple TV is the same processor you'd find inside an iPhone. Apple's AX line of processors is remarkably powerful. They crunch the numbers that allow you to play games, watch videos and browse the web. They do this efficiently, quietly and without producing much heat. They are, of course, Apple-designed.

The guts inside the current Apple TV are, by technology's standards, ancient. Its A5 processor debuted in 2011 with the iPhone 4S, and the Apple TV runs a single-core version of it. Apple's current top-of-the-line processor, the A8 series, is significantly more powerful. Its quad-core GPU, which Apple says is 50 percent more powerful than its immediate predecessor, easily pushes far more than the 1920x1080 pixels you'd find on most TVs.

Thus, the hardware roadmap seems clear. The next Apple TV will run current Apple-developed hardware optimized for television resolution.

The Software

Apple TV also uses another piece of technology originally designed for iPhones and iPads: their operating system, iOS.

In its current form, Apple TV runs a denuded version of the operating system. There is no App Store. There is no API for developers to create native software. Though Apple has released a steady stream of updates, the device's channels — like Crunchyroll, Hulu Plus, HBO Now and YouTube — are apps that Apple controls. It is the sole gatekeeper of what appears in the relatively weak system.

Coupled with powerful new hardware, there's no reason that the next Apple TV can't run the real version of iOS. And if it runs iOS, then an App Store and games can't be far behind. iOS is a fertile market for games, and developers already familiar with Apple's software and hardware should be able to make or even port existing games to the new set-top box.

And let's not forget Metal, the API that Apple created to give game makers more direct access to the hardware it created. It debuted on iOS, but this year, it's coming to Macs, too.

The Games

If Apple is designing its next Apple TV to play games, then it's likely to tailor some of the hardware to support them. That begins with the remote.

The current, minimalist Apple TV remote may have some simplistic beauty, but any owner will tell you that it has disadvantages, too. It's way too easy to lose. Expect Apple to address this with something not more complicated, necessarily, but something at least more substantial.

Also, given that iOS is a touch- and gesture-based interface, it's also reasonable to expect some sort of touchpad. Imagine a slightly larger version of the current remote, with a few buttons in one side and a touchpad optimized to ignore accidental gestures on the other.

It won't be the same as having a controller in your hands, but it'll do just fine for Angry Birds and other simple, swipey games. And because Apple controls all of the hardware and software in its ecosystem, it could turn your iPhone and iPad into swipey controllers, too.

If Apple is really serious about gaming, though, it could also make a controller. Even if it doesn't, iOS already supports third-party controllers, and Apple TV is likely to follow suit.

REVOLUTION

Today seems likely to be the culmination of a long-held desire within Apple to do something it believes meaningful for your TV. It has the hardware power and the software prowess to do so.

And though Steve Jobs won't be around to see it, he may have foreshadowed what was to come when speaking to his biographer, Walter Isaacson.

In the closing chapters of Steve Jobs, Isaacson speaks not of the man's accomplishments but of the things the late CEO won't be around to see, the revolutions Jobs won't be here to tackle. And one of his plans was TV:

And he very much wanted to do for television sets what he had done for computers, music players, and phones: make them simple and elegant. "I'd like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use," he told me. "It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud." No longer would users have to fiddle with complex remotes for DVD players and cable channels. "It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it."

Whether we'll see that vision in its fullest form today remains to be seen. Apple, the revolutionary company, almost certainly wants to disrupt the TV industry. It is almost certainly in deep negotiations with ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and others about how to bring their content directly to Apple TV cheaply, without a cable subscription.

But the word on the street is that those negotiations are exceedingly difficult. For various reasons, the thinking goes, Apple delayed this hardware up until the point where delaying no longer made sense. Apple TV as a viable replacement for your cable box is almost certainly the goal. Apple may not have reached it yet.

But what we are expecting to see today could still be an interesting product, particularly for gamers. And it could reverberate throughout the gaming world, if Apple is serious about supporting games.

The toughest part of Apple's assumed gaming pitch will be that no matter how impressive Apple's hardware might be — no matter how many pixels it can push — it's never going to be as powerful as the devices that Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony produce. Those consoles set the baseline standard for what gamers expect on their TV-connected devices.

Or, of course, gaming on Apple TV could be an afterthought like Amazon's Fire TV, another box that launched with gaming in mind — and even a controller — but quickly faded from public consciousness. Even Amazon, at this point, seems more hyped about the smaller, thumb drive-sized Fire TV Stick.

There isn't much precedent for comparatively underpowered devices, in other words. Although, to be fair, the greatest counter-example is also the bestselling console of the last decade: the Nintendo Wii. That console succeeded, in large part, not by dazzling with graphics but through a combination of intuitive, gesture-based controls and relatively simple games on a piece of hardware significantly cheaper than its competition. An Apple TV priced at $150 could be the next Wii.

Love it or hate it, it's difficult to deny Apple's stature. It didn't seem to want to get into gaming, but it created devices that became viable gaming platforms, and Apple was smart to acknowledge the market it unintentionally created. Even if it was dragged, kicking and screaming, into gaming, it's been here for years. When we look back at today's announcement, we might just remember it as the day that Apple Inc. finally embraced gaming.