Why Apps are definitely coming to Apple TV (I think)

(Photo credit: Apple.com)

Aside from reading and writing, I'm also a huge geek/nerd. I love technology, and in the eyes of some probably spend way too much of my hard earned money on tech toys. But, what's the point of life if you can't do things you enjoy? That's what I tell myself each time I swipe the credit card.

I'm the definition of an Apple Fan Boy. Certified and card-carrying. So naturally I was glued to my computer screen watching six different live-blogs of Apple's media event yesterday to announce "the new iPad" (still trying to get used to that) and a revamped version of their Apple TV set-top box. 

I own two of the last generation Apple TV's (they look exactly the same as the new model --  a tiny sleek black box), one in my bedroom and one in the living room, and love them. They allow me to easily stream my music, tv shows and movies I purchase or rent from iTunes and have stored on my computer in the office to my televisions. I can also rent and purchase directly from the box itself, and use Apple's Airplay technology to stream content from my iPhone or iPad to the television as well. This comes especially useful because I have a mac mini in my office running a third-party media center software called PLEX -- an absolutely fantastic bit of software that organizes all of my tv shows and movies (non-itunes purchases) that I have saved and puts a pretty user interface over top of it, downloading movie and tv episode synopsis, cast, poster art, etc. Plus, it'll play any format of media I have, regardless of file type -- where iTunes and the Apple TV will by default only play the apple formated .mp4 / h.264 format. The fine folks over at PLEX have an App for the iPhone and iPad that lets me not only access my server and watch my content on my mobile devices, but use Airplay to then beam that content to my big screens anywhere in my house via the Apple TV. There's also a plugin for your Apple TV if you want to jailbreak it (I did not tell you to do this, nor do I endorse it) that allows you to install a PLEX client directly onto your Apple TV and skip the whole iphone/iPad middle man. 

And this brings me to the point of this post: The one thing that would make the Apple TV infinitely better would be the ability to install 3rd-party apps via an app store, just like you do with your other Apple devices. As of right now, there are only a handful of apps built in to the Apple TV that play stuff other than iTunes. There's Netflix, Vimeo, NBA League Pass, NHL, MLB, Youtube, and Wall Street Journal to name most of them. But again, these are preloaded by default, and the only options you have. When the iPhone launched originally in 2007, it only had the Apple propriety apps installed, and people still loved it. When Apple opened up the App store and let developers start creating their own apps for the iPhone, the popularity EXPLODED. Let's face it, the App store is the 2nd biggest reason the iPhone and iPad do as well as they do in terms of market share (first being their unrivaled interface and ease of use). With somewhere around 3957379208384 billion apps (okay, I made that up) there's no reason you can't find an app to do exactly what you want at any given time on your devices. 

The same thing needs to happen with the Apple TV. Here's why: 

People love Apple. People want Apple. What people also want is the ability to do what they want with their devices and not be limited or locked down. The Apple TV, in all its current awesomeness, is still a bit limited. The less tech-savvy people, or those who don't own an iPhone or iPad but still have an Apple TV either don't have or don't understand the ability to use Airplay from their devices, and are limited to only Apple-given content on their Apple TVs. That's going to equal less sales. People are going to turn Roku, or Boxee, or WD, or even just a Smart TV set to feed their television with content from other online providers. Apple knows this. They've seen what the App store did for mobile devices, and they understand what people want, even if they are at times slow to give it to them.

Apple doesn't like people messing with their stuff. iOS 5.1 was launched yesterday and already this morning I've seen a tweet from one of my tech sources that says it has been jailbroken. Which means with a software fix for the tech savvy among us, you can circumvent all the restrictions Apple has on the devices and basically do want you want with it (that's a lame explanation, but you get the idea). While this usually just further proves the devices capabilities, which you might think would be a good thing for Apple, it also can hinder performance or break other features or (gasp) limit Apple's control over the device. They don't like that. Why do people Jailbreak? Because they want to do things, install things, that they couldn't otherwise. Like the PLEX app I mentioned earlier.

Why I think know 3rd party apps are coming to the Apple TV: 

1: The new processor in the newest new version of the Apple TV gives the device the horsepower to process full 1080P HD video. This is great news. Up until this point, HD content from Apple was limited to 720P, and if you tried airplay or a jailbroken hack to play 1080P content on the Apple TV the results were less than stellar. But, the processor isn't what really excited me. It was the new user interface that really got me thinking. The old Apple TV interface was a mostly text-based. Linear drop down menus with words. The only pictures were thumbnails for videos or music you'd selected. With the newest update (also available as a software download for existing Apple TV devices) you might notice a familiar look.

(Photo credit: Apple.com)

 Notice anything? See the big colorful block icons for the Apps now? Remind you of anything? Like maybe the apps on the iPhone or the iPad or even launchpad in mac os 10.7?  Yep, sure does. It's a small tweak, but in my opinion it does a lot more than just pretty up the screen, it lays the first few bricks on the path for 3rd party apps to find their way to the Apple TV homescreen.

2: Deeper Netflix integration. What? I thought we were talking about Apple? We are, hear me out. Netflix has always been on the Apple TV -- you just launch the app, sign in with your email and password, and BOOM, instant access to Netflix in all its dwindling glory. Now, however, with the newest software update, the marriage between Netflix and Apple goes a little deeper? Just unpacked your brand new shiny Apply TV, notice the Netflix icon, realize you don't have a Netflix account? No problem, just launch the app and you can now sign up for Netflix directly from the Apple TV. Sweet, right? No need to go find a computer and pull up a website and all that. Oh, your credit card is in your wallet on the other side of the house? No problem. Not only can you sign up for Netflix from the Apple TV, you can now PAY for Netflix with your iTunes account! 

This is all great, not only are Apple and Netflix playing very nice with each other (and let's face it, Netflix needs powerful friends these days) but I think they are testing the water for subscription based 3rd-party apps on the Apple TV. You know all those magazines and newspapers you subscribe to on your iPad that are billed directly from Apple? Apple's seeing how well that process works on the Apple TV. Hopefully Netflix will only be the first of many.

The rumors are swirling as of late about Apple launching a full-fledged Television set either late this year or 2013, and maybe 3rd-party apps won't find their way to an Apple TV device until then (my major concern is hard drive space, since the set-top boxes have very little, where do you store your apps? Especially if games enter into the mix with heavy graphics and equally heavy download weights.). Regardless, I think it's pretty clear that there will soon be an App store for an Apple TV device.

Stay tuned.