Apple appears to be preparing to get serious about Apple TV.
The company's link between the computer and the big-screen television has long been considered a "hobby" in the eyes of Apple CEO Steve Jobs, at least when viewed against major projects like the Mac, the iPod, and the iPhone. But signs have been growing that Apple is thinking about making a more significant investment behind Apple TV.
The most recent tip was a survey that Apple conducted online on Tuesday, which has since disappeared from the company's Web site although was captured by AppleInsider. In that survey, Apple asked Apple TV owners a number of questions about the sources of video they are watching on the device, as well as asking owners to describe the one thing they would change about the device.
Apple TV's shortcomings are well documented: it can't play DVDs, it can't connect to your cable or satellite service, and it doesn't have a browser for accessing the millions of Internet videos that can't be found on YouTube. But sales have nonetheless picked up in the year since Apple decided to open up the device to movie rentals through the iTunes Store, instead of requiring owners to purchase movies.
During Apple's last earnings conference call, COO Tim Cook noted that Apple TV sales in its first fiscal quarter were three times greater than the quarter a year ago, without breaking out the exact number, of course. But he also said "... let me be clear. We still consider this a hobby. It is clear that the movie rental business has really helped Apple TV and there are more and more customers that want to try it."
Connecting the television to the Internet and home networks in a simple manner is a dream that has eluded the tech industry for a very long time. More and more devices like the Apple TV and the Roku media player are taking a stab at this market with increasing interest from consumers, but no one seems to have hit on the magic combination of features, services and price just yet.
Once Apple gets the next big steps out of the way--the launch of Mac OS X Snow Leopard and a probable mid-year iPhone launch--tweaking the Apple TV might be a good strategy heading into the holiday season.
Last week, Piper Jaffray's Gene Munster wrote that Apple is planning on adding TiVo-like DVR capabilities to a new version of Apple TV later this year, and Sanford Bernstein's Toni Sacconaghi predicted Apple would find a way to incorporate the Tru2way software into a future Apple TV in order to let it communicate with cable networks. While the latter seems like a bit of a stretch--Apple often likes to go its own way when it comes to fledgling industry standards--opening up Apple TV to video sources other than just the iTunes Store and YouTube could make it a much more interesting device.