Apple is arming up to redefine TV just like it did the phone

Apple TV OLED rumors

Apple is on the cusp of launching a major new product: A TV viewing experience that is dizzying in scope, and unlike anything on the market. Much more than just a streaming service, Apple’s new vision hopes to encompass both live TV and on-demand video, and be accessible on virtually any screen. It’s aimed to be deeply personalized, delivering recommendations based on a variety of factors, including what you’ve watched, where you live, and where you’re located at the moment you use the service. It will be a competitor to — and in some cases a partner of — existing streaming services. And it might already be built into your TV.

While no one can say for sure what Apple will or won’t launch, the following is a description of what we believe is Apple’s long-term strategy when it comes to TV. It’s based largely on the contents of a 113-page patent issued to Apple under the title “TV Side Bar User Interface” that was published on February 5, 2019. Some of the elements might seem outlandish, and we acknowledge that sometimes a patent is just a patent and not a product road map. Nonetheless, the level of detail in that patent is remarkable, and much of it feels logical, if not wholly practical.

Below is a speculative sneak peek at Apple’s ambitious new TV service.

Apple TV, the subscription service

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By now, you’ve read the rumors that Apple is creating a streaming service with original content to compete with Netflix, Amazon, and others. Apple’s ambitions appear to go way beyond becoming a production studio, however. Were it to launch a me-too service, with a mix of licensed and original content, it might take a small bite out of the other companies’ profits, but it would face an uphill battle. Instead, Apple hopes to do what it has always done: Create a better way of interacting with the technology at hand — and make that experience the basis of its product.

The service is expected to be called simply “Apple TV.” Yes, Apple calls its set-top boxes that, but as we’ll outline below, the line between Apple’s video hardware and software is poised to become very blurred.

Virtual cable box, unlimited DVR

Apple’s new service aims to become the ultimate video aggregator, pulling in content from a wide variety of sources. Though its ambitions in this area will be limited by the deals it can strike with players like cable, satellite, streaming video, and live TV companies, Apple is expected to build an infrastructure that will be capable of hosting everything. In theory, even the free over-the-air (OTA) local broadcasts could be captured. Using a massive collection of content servers — positioned strategically around the country — as its backbone, Apple could theoretically become the single largest warehouse of licensed video content, period. With Apple’s servers acting as the repository for all of this content, its network becomes the ultimate DVR.

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That immediately raises any number of questions about licensing rights and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations. Still, if Apple can get the deals done, there’s no reason why all of that content can’t reside within the company’s infrastructure. Sitting adjacent to all of that content will be a parallel database containing the license info for every show, movie, and sports event. Game Of Thrones, for instance, will only be made available to viewers who have demonstrated that they already have (or are willing to pay for) HBO.

Apple TV subscribers will be asked to provide sign-in credentials for all of their subscriptions, and it may be necessary to re-authenticate these on a periodic basis, but we suspect that Apple will find a way to make this as painless as possible. Apple’s goal is to make other set-top boxes redundant, whether they’re for receiving cable, satellite, or streaming media, leaving Apple TV as a single, unifying experience.

More than just a collection of content

One of the goals of amassing this huge content store is to provide viewers with more options than any other single source. Netflix has been criticized over its recommendations, with viewers saying that it buries too much of its catalog in favor of Netflix Originals. The intent here is that you’ll watch everything at your disposal through the Apple TV interface, giving Apple far more intelligence about your likes and dislikes.

You’ll watch everything at your disposal through the Apple TV interface, giving Apple far more intelligence about your likes and dislikes.

Just like in iTunes, these personalized recommendations will be under the Genius brand and work in much the same way. But instead of being limited to iTunes, Genius will show you the best matches from everything you have the rights to watch. You’ll also have control over which content is offered up: Apple plans to let viewers create filters based on SD or HD quality, free or paid content, ad-supported or ad-free content, or any combination thereof.

The cost of doing business

One of the biggest hurdles Apple will need to overcome is actually acquiring those big partnerships. It’s been rumored the service will cost viewers $15 per month, while Apple plans to take its usual 30 percent cut of the revenue from third-party content. This may not sit well with big players like Hulu, Netflix, and HBO Now, all of which have been rumored as hesitant to partner with Apple’s new service.

Could such a service survive without a partner as big as Netflix? While it’s too early to tell, we think Apple is banking on making that partnership happen, and will do what it takes to get it done even if Apple can’t command as much of a share of revenue as it wants. It’s also entirely possible that Netflix, HBO, and others won’t be on board at launch, which could greatly diminish users’ appetite for signing up.

An EPG on steroids

Apple TV’s electronic program guide (EPG) will look a lot like the ones you’re familiar with, but it will have a few distinctive features. It will aggregate all of the channels you have access to, whether from cable, satellite, live TV streaming, or potentially even local OTA broadcasts if Apple has better luck than other ventures at navigating the FCC rules. If Apple determines you have access to an episode airing later in the day, it could suggest you watch it through one of your on-demand subscriptions.

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By the same token, if you’re watching on the West Coast, and that episode has already aired back east, you’ll be able to watch it right away via Apple’s servers. Satellite customers already know this feature as time-shifting, but now it will be available on a much broader basis. If no watch-now option exists for a show, you might be presented with a subscribe, rent, or purchase option. Live events like award shows or sports will be passed along in real-time, though it’s possible there might be a slight lag as the broadcast passes from its origin through Apple’s network.

Follow me

Conventional cable or satellite subscriptions typically only allow you to watch some of their content on mobile apps away from home. Apple TV subscriptions will be subscriber-centric, which means that, theoretically, your content may be able to follow you where you go. You’ll be able to view it on your iPhone, but if you go over to a friend’s house and they have a compatible device, your subscriptions could be made available there too. Your iPhone or even your Apple Watch could act as an authorization device, wirelessly communicating your presence (and your subscription profile).

Your iPhone or even your Apple Watch could act as an authorization device, wirelessly communicating your presence

If you are both subscribers to Apple’s service, you might see video from both of your specific subscriptions. This Follow Me feature will work in hotels too, if they have the necessary equipment, and it can be turned off entirely. If family members who are still at home want to watch TV, you’ll be able to give your home TV priority over any conflicts that may arise from multiple streams if these aren’t allowed under your plan.

Apple’s patent doesn’t specify the need for an Apple product, like an iPhone, to enable the Follow Me feature. Instead, it only requires a form of authentication, which could be biometric, or simply a password entered via remote control. This means that (in theory) a Samsung phone with the Apple TV app could authenticate itself over Bluetooth using the phone’s fingerprint scanner.

Highly social

With Apple’s Friends feature, you’ll be able to pull your friends’ profiles from social media accounts like Facebook or Twitter, and see what they’re watching. Friends can set their own level of privacy to share all or none of their activity. “Close” friends will have their own Apple TV landing pages on which you can see more extensive profile info, as well as options for text, audio, and video calling.

Your friends’ viewing activity may even play a role in which shows and movies are recommended to you through the Genius feature, automatically allowing you to subscribe to new services if you see a show you like from a new service. Actors will also have their own landing pages, giving them a similar ability to share content as simple as the shows they’re enjoying right now, to YouTube-style videos they post. You’ll be able to add actors to your Friends list to influence your Genius recommendations, though interactions will obviously be more limited.

Apple, however, might find itself in a bit of legal hot water if it doesn’t really spell out how it intends to monitor your TV watching habits and acquire your consent first.

Deep dives

TV shows and movies will also have landing pages, and these will act as hubs for things like cast and crew lists, related shows and movies, and even extra content like director commentaries, behind-the-scenes videos, and cast interviews. Even individual episodes of a show may have this level of detail.

ESPN

The service may also automatically create highlight videos for a given show, movie, or sports event, based on the behavior of other viewers on the service. If a lot of people rewatch a specific section of a broadcast — like a particularly notable moment from a Super Bowl halftime show or an Saturday Night Live skit — this could generate a highlight or clip.

Sports fans will be treated to an especially rich experience, with a variety of game-related stats presented on screen, including player lineups, highlights, and team schedules.  Athletes, like actors, will get their own landing pages, giving them the same opportunity for fan interaction. You’ll even be able to create filters that prevent the game’s outcome from being spoiled if you can’t watch it live. This includes eliminating highlights as well as a “do not disturb” mode to keep your friends from spoiling the game for you.

Your videos too

In the past, your personal videos have only been accessible on an Apple TV with certain kinds of files or through a third-party app like Plex. The new Apple TV service may be able to pull and catalog your videos from any source, with or without the help of iTunes, regardless of the format. Apple TV will acquire the metadata for your personal video collection, and offer up the same Genius recommendations and associated content like cast, crew, etc.

Hardware

Apple is expected to release a new version of the Apple TV set-top box that will support external drives for increased storage capacity. This could potentially be used as a way to add personal videos to the Apple TV service, without the need of a computer or a NAS drive. In addition to Wi-Fi and Ethernet, the box is expected to feature a MoCA cable connection, which will expand the number of scenarios for use, including hotels and cruise ships. The subscription service will also likely be compatible with Apple TV 4K and the previous Apple TV 4th gen, though it’s unlikely older hardware will support it.

Apple TV Review
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Apple’s own boxes may be just part of the picture. Earlier this year, Samsung became the first TV manufacturer to embed both AirPlay 2 and Apple’s iTunes Video store into its Smart TVs. This is just the beginning. We predict Apple will create partnerships programs — perhaps under the label, “Made for Apple TV” —  to give participating manufacturers the ability to embed the full Apple TV subscriber experience into their products. This could take the shape of a Roku TV-style partnership, where Apple’s software becomes the de facto operating system, or it could simply run as a native app, the same way Netflix appears on most Smart TVs.

When will this launch?

It has been rumored that Apple will announce the new Apple TV service at its upcoming March 25 event, where it will be presented side by side with the company’s news subscription service. The services themselves will likely not go live until the fall of 2019, though there may be an opportunity for beta testing before that time frame.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

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