In this article we have been rounding-up all of the speculation surrounding Apple's fourth-generation Apple TV, which it is expected will be updated at some point this year, perhaps at WWDC in June. Here, we'll bring you all of the latest rumours about the new Apple TV release date as well as new features that the device needs if it is to compete with the alternatives to Apple TV. We'll update this story as more Apple TV information becomes available, so be sure to check back from time to time.
Updated on 9 April with news that Comcast let slip Apple's plans for a revamped set top box in legal papers. And speaking of legal proceedings, revelations in the Apple v Samsung trial include an email from Steve Jobs that reveals his plans for the Apple TV. PLUS: Apple is expected to reveal more about the Apple TV at WWDC on 2 June.
The latest suggestion is that Apple may not update the Apple TV until June when it will host its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC).
This article focuses on the Apple TV - the set-top box that Apple has always described as a hobby - rather than the Apple television that is rumoured to be in the works. If you want to find out about more about the TV set, you can read all the rumours about the iTV Apple Television here.
Why Apple needs a new Apple TV
The current Apple TV was last updated in January 2013 (a very minor update) referred to as third generation, Rev A. Some would say that the Apple TV was last significantly updated in March 2012 when it introduced the third generation model with the still in use A5 chip and 512MB RAM, and 1080p video capabilities. Along with 8GB Flash memory (not for customer use) and the 10cm x 10cm dimensions little has changed since Apple redesigned the Apple TV in March 2012.
Apple has a great deal of competition in the TV streaming field, much of which offers more content and better features as you can see from our Apple TV alternatives article here. Having assessed what's on offer from the competition we concluded that Apple TV needs more UK OnDemand content if it is to be taken seriously here in the UK.
Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster thinks that the launch of the FireTV by Amazon (launched at the beginning of April) should spur Apple on to update the Apple TV. Munster told investors that he believes the Apple TV should become a "focus product line" for Apple, notes Apple Insider.
Another reason why Apple needs to update the Apple TV is the poor state of the TV experience - specifically cable TV. According to Jean-Louis Gassée (one time head of Apple France) as noted on his blog, cable TV deliery is flawed, and that is made worse by the fact that the US gets poor broadband for a higher price than other countries. Suggesting that "Carriers take too much money for a user-hostile experience simply because they can".
He adds: "In most locations, cable companies have little or no competition, so there’s no reason for them to do anything more than milk the most profit from a cheap infrastructure." Gassée notes that even where he is based, in Paris, the cable TV experience is a poor one, where users have to "juggle set-top box restarts and malfunctioning secondary content subscriptions" and suggests that Apple could "collapse this maze on impenetrable interfaces into one box".
This dismay with the cable TV offering is likely to be one reason why many are talking about Apple and Comcast working together in the US (as discussed below).
What did Steve Jobs think of the Apple TV?
Steve Jobs always used to describe the Apple TV as a "hobby" but in the last years of his life he seemed to be won over to the idea that Apple could take a place in the livingroom. Jobs' biographer asked him about television and Jobs said he'd craked it, leading to much speculation that Apple has big plans to improve it's Apple TV, or perhaps offer an actual Apple television set, sometimes referred to as iTV.
Jobs told Isaacson: "I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use. 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 use interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it."
However, Jobs wasn't all for the entry into the television market. According to claims in a book, Apple's late CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs had ruled out selling a television. The revelation appears in Haunted Empire: Apple After Steve Jobs by former Wall Street Journal reporter Yukari Iwatani Kane. Kane claims that on one occasion at a company retreat Jobs was asked whether Apple intended to release a television set and his response was: "no". Jobs went on to describe TV as a "terrible business," stating that "they don't turn over and the margins suck".
Despite this, further evidence has appeared that suggests that television was an area that Apple is interested in. As part of the Apple versus Samsung legal proceedings an email from Steve Jobs from October 2010 has emerged that sheds some light on the importance of the Apple TV, which Apple was still describing as a hobby product at the time. In the rough agenda for a meeting, Jobs notes the strategy is to: "Stay in the living room game and make a great "must have" accessory for iOS devices."
The email suggests that part of the strategy will be to add content from NBC, CBS, Viacom and HBO. In addition, Jobs mentioned TV subscriptions, apps, and browser. This suggests that the company has been considering working with TV companies to offer subscriptions, as well as creating apps for the Apple TV for some time.
Also mentioned in the Steve Jobs email being presented in court in the Apple v Samsung case is a "magic wand" for use with the Apple TV. The magic wand idea has also leaked in the past, with claims that Apple was looking at ways of controlling the Apple TV using motion. You can read the whole Steve Jobs email here.
When will Apple launch the new Apple TV?
We've been expecting a new Apple TV for a while now. As we mention above, the most recent version of the Apple TV hardware is a year old, although the most recent significant hardware update came over two years ago on 16 March 2012 when Apple added 1080p video support. The slight revision in January 2013 was more about making it cheaper for Apple to build than adding new functionality for users.
Reports at the beginning of February were suggesting that Apple would be launching a new Apple TV set-top box in March 2014. Clearly this hasn't happened, and reports (back on 13 February) were claiming the update might not come until April, another rumour that looks set to be disqualified...
Now that Apple has announced that WWDC will kick off on 2 June 2014 it seems likely that we will hear more about the Apple TV at that event - perhaps Apple will release an Apple TV SDK, finally bringing the ability to write apps for the Apple TV to developers.
In a note to investors Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster explains that he expects the updated Apple TV to arrive in the second half of 2014, this would corespond with the WWDC event.
The rumours that Apple would update the Apple TV soon gained some gravitas when Apple recently started promoting the Apple TV in its own section of the Apple online store. Previously Apple had put the Apple TV into the same section as the iPod, but, perhaps because the iPod sales are in decline, as demonstrated by the most recent financial results, this product has now been given its own spotlight.
Additionally, in February 2014, references to a fourth-generation Apple TV were spotted within iOS 7 configuration files, adding evidence to the rumours that suggest a new Apple TV is nearly here.
The references were spotted within an Apple TV framework that relates to the AirPlay functionality of the device. The framework mentions an "AppleTV4,1" which appears to be a next generation device that follows the current Apple TV, called "AppleTV3,2" within the framework.
The rumours of an update aren't new, however. In 2013 there were claims that Apple would launch a new Apple TV in October. According to the source of those rumours, the Apple TV project had "been delayed a bit".
In November, KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, who has an impressive Apple prediction track record, told investors that he believes Apple will launch a new Apple TV in 2014.
However there are other claims suggesting that the new Apple TV could come as late as Christmas 2014.
There are other rumours that suggest that Apple may intend to do more than launch a new Apple TV set-top box, the new TV product could be an actual television. If you want to find out more about the rumours that Apple is planning to launch a television set, you can read about the iTV Apple Television here.
Why is the new Apple TV delayed?
The current Apple TV was last updated in January 2013 (a very minor update). It was expected that Apple would update the Apple TV in late 2013, but it failed to do so. Why hasn't Apple updated the Apple TV for more than a year?
Reports are currently claiming that the new Apple TV box might be delayed while Apple is negotiating with content providers to arrive at deals that could see users having access to even more content on Apple's new set-top box when it launches.
Apple is said to have been negotiating a deal with content providers in the US with a view to adding more content to the Apple TV before the next version of the hardware is launched, according to Bloomberg. Talks with Time Warner had been on-going but were scuppered, as discussed above, when it emerged that Comcast is requesting to buy Time Warner Cable for more than $40 billion. According to Bloomberg sources, Apple has "run into problem" dealing with Comcast in the past, but a later report, discussed below, suggests that talks may be back on track.
Apple is also said to be attempting to do a deal with other TV providers that would see Apple TV users having access to the five most recently-aired episodes of shows for three days after they air.
It may take until Christmas for these deals to be signed. Bloomberg claims that while Apple is aiming to unveil the device by April, it is aiming to have it available for sale by Christmas.
There are also suggestions that Apple won't update the Apple TV because it's not a profitable market for them. This argument was recently promoted by Roku's CEO Anthony Wood who claims that Apple's Apple TV is "a money loser". He is doubtful that Apple should continue selling it.
"Apple TV is essentially an accessory for the iPad," he said at the Code/Media event in March: "They lose money, which is unusual for Apple. If you're losing money, why would you want to sell more?" he said.
The new Apple TV as a cable substitute: Apple TV Comcast rumours
Apple is rumoured to be in negotiations with Comcast, the largest television cable company and internet service provider in the US with a view to working with the company to bring the next version of the Apple TV to market.
Comcast, which has owned NBCUniversal since 2011, produces film and television content, operates cable channels and film studio Universal Pictures. Back in February 2014 Comcast agreed to merge with Time Warner Cable in an equity swap deal worth $45.2 billion. Apple is said to have been working on a deal with Time Warner Cable for some time, but the negotiations were thought to have been scuppered by the proposed Comcast buyout.
The latest report, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal in March, suggest that the negotiations have continued, with Apple and Comcast attempting to reach agreement.
It is thought that Comcast could benefit from a deal with Apple in a number of ways, especially at a time when more and more cable customers are cutting the cord in favour of on demand services.
It is thought that the deal with Apple and Comcast could see Comcast replace the customer’s cable box with an Apple TV. It is suggested that customers will be happier with a user interface and hardware provided by Apple, and this will lower the cost of leasing the box.
Comcast will benefit from leaving Apple to secure content rights – as long as Apple doesn't price the service higher than traditional pay-TV services.
One area of contention is likely to be Apple's desire that users subscribe to Comcast services on the device itself, using their Apple ID credentials, and therefore Comcast will not have access to this customer data.
Apple will benefit because it will get priority treatment on Comcast’s network. By partnering with a cable company, Apple could get "managed service" status, which addresses the problems of net neutrality. If this system was implemented its Apple TV traffic would be separated from public traffic in the final mile, so users would get better bandwidth. This last mile is usually reserved by the cable company for its own services. Net neutrality rulings suggest that this practice shouldn't be allowed, but in January an appeals court ruled that ISPs like Comcast are legally able to prioritize some content over others.
Comcast has been the subject of criticism for its stance on net neutrality. Net neutrality rules are intended to stop ISPs charging companies like Netflix extra fees to ensure their customers receive high-quality service. Netflix and Comcast recently came to an agreement that ensures that Comcast's Netflix users have a good experience.
Apple will benefit if the Apple TV is able to bypass congestion on the web. However, according to the WSJ, Apple isn’t asking for its traffic to be prioritized by Comcast, just for its traffic to be part of Comcast’s managed services, in order to abide with the net neutrality rules that prevent Comcast from discriminating against some network traffic.
Jean-Louis Gassée is sceptical about the credibility of the Comcast and Apple rumours. He seconds Philip Elmer-DeWitt's suggestion that The Wall Street Journal was "played by someone intent on throwing a wrench into Comcast's plan to acquire Time Warner's cable operations".
The latest in the Comcast Apple saga is the revelation that Comcast has revealed that Apple is working on a new set-top box. It noted Apple's plans in its US Federal Communications filing that is part of its efforts to get the go ahead for its proposed acquisition of Time Warner Cable.
The mention of Apple came as Comcast sought to demonstrate that its competitors are looking for new ways to get content to customers. Comcast claimed that Apple is exploring "development of an Apple set-top box," in the filing.
Comcast for the US, what about Europe and UK? Apple and Virgin Media?
That's all very well, but what does this news mean to UK and European Apple TV owners. Not a lot. Comcast hasn't had a foot on UK soil since it sold its UK division to NTL in February 1998.
NTL went on to become Virgin Media, which is probably the UK's closest equivalent to Comcast. This is where it gets interesting: in 2013 Virgin Media was taken over by Liberty Global.
Liberty Global is the owner of 11 cable companies in Europe making it the largest cable operator in Europe with 18.4 million subscribers. It has a foothold in the UK, Poland, Switzerland, Belgium, Ireland, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic. It recently announced that it would acquire Dutch cable company Ziggo.
If Apple is looking for the European equivalent of Comcast to do business with in Europe, Liberty Global would be the obvious choice.
Incidentally, Liberty Global has a stake in Charter Communications, which was also pursuing Time Warner Cable, although unsuccessfully, given the news that Comcast will be merging with Time Warner.
Liberty Global's chairman John Malone is also chairman of television giant Discovery Communications, who make programming for The Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and other channels.
In his heyday, Malone controlled TCI (Tele-Communications Inc), which was the biggest cable operator in the United States for many years until he sold the systems. It was eventually purchased by AT&T, whose cable TV assets were later acquired by Charter Communications and Comcast.
Incidentally, Malone also owns a controlling stake in Sirius XM Radio, to which iTunes Radio could be considered a competitor.
Should Apple be negotiating a deal with Liberty Global in Europe the company may be in luck: Malone is a self-confessed Apple fan. In an interview with the Denver Post last year he revealed that he is "addicted to the iPad". He also owns an Apple desktop, a MacBook Air and an iPhone. However, he isn't a fan of the iPhone because the battery dies to fast: "I like the Apple ecosystem, I’m comfortable with it. But the iPhone battery life is probably the thing that keeps me from being 100 percent Apple," he said.
In the same interview, Malone shared his thoughts that the major cable operators need to consolidate in order to drive down programming costs and to achieve the scale needed to compete with internet giants such as Apple and Google. He said: "The industry, without that cooperation, doesn't have enough scale to be a serious player in a global world," adding that Google and Apple "are basically thinking in terms of billions of customers rather than tens of millions."
Liberty Global's CEO Mike Fries doesn't expect Apple to sell a television though. He told Bloomberg last September: "I don’t think Apple is going to build a TV." He revealed that Apple's strategy is talking to cable providers about revamping the interface for pay-TV services, one might conclude that Apple had been talking to him.
New Apple TV rumours: new design
We don't expect that the design of the Apple TV will change from the current model. However, there are a number of theories that could see the design change significantly.
Following in the footsteps of the Roku Streaming Stick and Google ChromeCast, it's possible that Apple's next Apple TV could take a completely different form factor. Those devices take on the styling of a USB memory stick, except they plug into an HDMI port. They include no storage, and offer access to various web based TV channels and On Demand and subscription content. It seems reasonable to suppose that Apple might take on this design cue for the new Apple TV.
Luckily, Martin Hajek, famous for creating concept images of the iPhone 6, has now teamed up with German site, Curved.de to create some images of what they refer to as the AppleTV Air. Curved.de estimates the price at €49, which translates to around £40 or $67.
Alternatively, it is possible that the Apple TV could be bigger than it is currently if Apple was to include an Airport Express and a TV tuner inside the device, as discussed below.
We do expect that the ports on the back of the Apple TV will change .For example, Thunderbolt seems likely to be introduced in the next version of the Apple TV, then users could connect their Apple TV to an Apple Thunderbolt Display and pretend that they own the mythical Apple Television. Currently the Apple TV can only connect to a HDTV with an HDMI cable.
A smaller design wouldn't allow for all the ports currently found on the back of the Apple TV. The device currently features the following ports: HDMI2, Optical audio, 10/100BASE-T Ethernet, Built-in IR receiver and Micro-USB (for service and support). Perhaps the new Apple TV Streaming Stick could by pass these additional ports.
Many who have decried the Apple TV's lack of a hard drive would be pleased if the company made the USB service port accessible for plugging in a hard drive.
New Apple TV rumours: concept images
Martin Hajek, famous for creating concept images of the iPhone 6, has now come up with a number of concept images for the Apple TV including a new look remote control that take inspiration from the iPod touch (it reminds us of the iPod nano from a few generations ago). His Apple TV measures 9.8 x 9.8 cm (similar to the current Apple TV) but is thinner at 1.67 cm. He has also suggested that models could come in grey, gold and silver.
Hajek worked with German website CURVED to come up with the images, which include one that shows the remote using inductive charging having been laid on top of the Apple TV.
The following images were produced by Hajek.
Read on to find out more about the new Apple TV spec and features including details about new channels and games.