Apple will announce its third iPad on March 7, but there’s also been a good amount of chatter about the possibility of a new AppleTV to compliment Apple’s iPadHD (hint: Not the name of the device. Trust me.). The most often-reported feature of this new device is a faster processor, a low-cost version of the A5 called the A5X. The bump would allow 1080p content to be displayed, whereas Apple’s current set-top cube only supports 720p. I don’t think this alone justifies the introduction of new hardware, however.
When you think about how Apple versions its products, they fall into 2 rough categories: the iPhone/iPad and their “desktop” offerings, or, if you like “iOS” and “OS X” devices. iOS devices get roughly annual refreshes and OS X device refresh frequencies run about the same (200 – 300 days, with the exception of the languishing Mac Pro). When Apple releases an iOS device, it comes with one or two “killer features” that differentiate it from its predecessor. In the case of the iPad 3, it will be a “Retina” screen, a faster processor and possibly the incorporation of Siri. The iPhone 4S had Siri, a faster processor and a much better camera. OS X updates are typically more subdued: a bump in processor speed, pre-installed RAM and HDD/SSD’s at the same price point (or less). The AppleTV is on a “tweener” cycle: the last one was released in September 2010, the original in January of 2007. With a new Apple TV, you’d expect a couple of new features that would justify the upgrade. With apologies to HDTV enthusiasts, an improved processor and the ability to display 1080p content by itself does not rise to what Apple has traditionally considered worthy of a new model. In my mind, that leaves three options for what we’ll see, if anything, related to the AppleTV on March 7: hardware, software and content (or perhaps some combination of the 3).
In addition to a faster processor, I think the options for the AppleTV’s hardware are rather limited, especially if we assume the device is going to keep the same form factor (which I think is likely, given how “leaky” the supply chain is with anything related to Apple’s hardware – witness the myriad iPad 3 photos leading up to its release). Siri is a distant possibility, but I’m not convinced that Siri is something Apple will ever port to its set-top box (put that in same bucket as my dissing the likelihood of an Apple Television). I think options like FaceTime, DVR functionality, motion control or any of the other possibilities floated in the blogosphere are pipe dreams.
AppleTV 5.0 could introduce any number of UI changes, as well as the introduction of new services based on new partnerships. A major software update, available to all ATV 2 owners, could be enough to float the release of a more limited hardware update, sort of like how iOS 3 was co-released with the iPhone 3GS.
The New York Post reported that Apple has been hounding content providers for partnerships for a new streaming television service. Although the source isn’t Wall Street Journal-level, it’s safe to assume Apple has been in ongoing negotiations with providers even before the debut original AppleTV. Currently, Apple’s marquis partners have limited to Netflix, a partner everyone and their brother has on their devices, including every “Smart TV”. Sure there are other fringe services like MLB and Vimeo also available, but I’d rate Apple’s current partner quality a C-; GoogleTV, Roku and just about everyone else has access to a wider swath of non-iTunes content than Apple does. I don’t think the addition of a Hulu Plus or HBO Go will make new hardware more likely. If additional access to content is what floats a new AppleTV, it’ll have to be a major deal involving multiple partners. Otherwise, it won’t share the stage with the iPad 3.
My prediction is that Apple is much more likely to announce something that can be applied to all its current AppleTVs in the way of software and/or partnerships than it is to announce new hardware, but some combination of the three is possible.
Update: Well, it looks like I was probably wrong about what justifies a hardware update. The new AppleTV has a faster processor that allows 1080p content – and it looks like that’s about it. I haven’t seen much on the updated UI, but hopefully it’s something that can be updated on existing ATV2′s. Win some/lose some.
Update 2: From the illustrious MG Siegler, via Twitter: “Old Apple TV does get new UI update. But it will be limited to 720p still”. And the update is being referred to as “5.0″, so at least I got the version down.