Put aside the rumors of streaming TV service or an Apple HDTV set. The company’s real play for the living room might be right under your nose — in the form of the iPad.
In the biography Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson quoted the Apple co-founder and CEO as remarking: “I finally cracked it.” The “it” was a fully-integrated wireless television set that could sync content and was extremely easy to use. Since the book was published, that quote has led to widespread conjecture about what an Apple iTV could look like.
With all of this speculation — including Isaacson’s revelation that he deliberately omitted details about an Apple television — it’s easy to overlook the fact that the iPad is already having a transformative effect on the living room as we know it.
In May, Nielsen reported that 70% of tablet users used the device while watching TV. This explains, in part, the explosion of second-screen apps we’ve seen over the last twelve to eighteen months.
It’s not that the iPad is just a great web browser. From its original launch, the device proved itself to be a great provider of content. Networks such as ABC and NBC offer iPad apps with access to full-length shows. Most major networks without a separate app have adapted their video technology to serve iPad-friendly files.
Content providers, many of whom had to be dragged into the 21st century kicking and screaming, have adopted the iPad with vigor and aplomb. The very same people that seek to discourage viewers from connecting a laptop or desktop to a television set have fallen all over themselves to support the iPad.
Game Machine of the Future
Video isn’t the only place this is happening. Game developers have taken notice too. Titles such as Infinite Blade 2, Grand Theft Auto III and RAGE HD have all helped establish just how good a $4.99 app can be.
I’m not going to attribute to growth in mobile and casual games solely to the iPad; the iPhone and Android played a huge role too. But the bigger screen and improved graphics engines in the tablet have certainly helped game developers rethink their non-console strategies.
Is it any wonder that the PlayStation Vita has more in common with a phone or tablet than a handheld console?
Meanwhile, Nintendo sees the tablet as the definitive control experience for its next-gen console. I had some hands-on time with a prototype Wii U at CES 2012. Nintendo wouldn’t come out and say it, but I believe the company feels its biggest competition is the iPad and an iPad connected to an Apple TV rather than the PS3 or Xbox 360.
Why? Because like the original Wii, the iPad provides casual gamers with an easy grab and play experience.
Meanwhile, the Xbox and PlayStation brands are busy touting their media features. Microsoft told us that up to half of new Xbox 360 owners buy the console primarily as a media center. We’ve heard similar reports from Sony.
Looking at the various interfaces and app features on connected television sets, Blu-ray players and consoles, it’s easy to see the influence that iOS has had. After all, if I can watch HBO Go, Netflix, Hulu Plus, ABC, NBC, SnagFilms, AdultSwim, Crackle and stream live cable TV on my iPad, why can’t I do those things on my television set?
AirPlay is Key
Of course, just because the iPad has gained traction in the living room doesn’t mean it has won. A key part is getting content from the small screen to the HDTV.
When the Apple TV 2 debuted in 2010, it was in some ways a step back from the first Apple TV in 2007. The original device was essentially a stripped-down Mac with a small internal hard drive and the ability to play networked content. In contrast, the Apple TV 2 was the equivalent of an iPod touch.
What the Apple TV 2 did introduce was AirPlay, and later, AirPlay mirroring. This allows users to take content from an iPhone or iPad and wirelessly transmit it to a monitor connected to an Apple TV.
Apple will allow Macs to get in on the AirPlay fun with OS X Mountain Lion. Putting aside the built-in services that Apple TV supports, the real value in the $99 device is in the fact that it can interact with so many third party apps and games.
I expect the next Apple TV will feature a faster processor, support for higher quality video and a beefier GPU. While I fully expect that Apple will release monitors or television sets with an Apple TV baked in, for now I believe the company will still use the device primarily as a wireless receiver for an iPhone or iPad.
In this way, the iPad remains the central entertainment hub. With iCloud, users can keep photos, videos and documents accessible in the cloud from any device. Still, the implication is that the iPad is what you use to control your living room, whether as a remote control or as a driver of content and games.
Apple likely has an even more ambitious plan for the living room. But the iPad paired with an Apple TV — and maybe even bundled with one? — is a damn good start.