COMMENT: An Apple TV has been the subject of speculation for nearly two years, but nothing happened until last week, when Apple released its first-ever instructions to design and develop a game controller for use with Apple products, including a TV display.
Apple knows that Samsung, LG, Sony and Panasonic dominate in the TV market, with both LG and Samsung leading the world in developing and manufacturing display panels.
For Apple to be successful in the TV market, it needs to have something that Samsung, LG, Sony and Panasonic don’t have -and that could well be software that delivers a superior content or gaming experience.
One of Apple’s major weaknesses is it does not manufacture the components in the products they sell. On Friday. it emerged that Apple has signed an agreement with Taiwanese semiconductor company TSMC to build mobile processors for its iOS devices. Currently, most of these processors are made by arch-rival Samsung.
The rival chip-maker will eventually take over from Samsung as Apple’s key supplier, eventually phasing out a business relationship that has been under siege, with each company spending millions on legal fees in several countries in an effort to outdo each other over patent claims.
A Wall Street Journal report claims TSMC will begin building chips in 2014, although Samsung will continue to be the primary supplier for that year and perhaps beyond.
Apple and TSMC had been in talks since 2010, the report said, but were finally able to agree a deal after the latter resolved “glitches preventing the chips from meeting Apple’s speed and power standards”.
The release of gaming instructions by Apple indicates that the company, whose shares have plunged recently, is considering a move into console-style game development. And today’s game controller for iOS 7 could mean that tomorrow’s Apple TV is a full-on gaming platform.
The move could well trigger other players to consider a move into gaming consoles built into a TV. The most notable would be Samsung or LG. Both companies are now building in dual and quad core processors into their TVs. They also have gesture and voice controls built into their top end offering.
The big breakthrough could come when Google announces its Android gaming platform. Google is currently working on its own video game console, powered by Android, according to the Wall Street Journal. The device, which would go head-to-head with the next Apple TV, could also see the Android software developed as an open standard offering, which would allow the likes of Samsung and LG to run the software on their TVs, with games manufacturers such as Electronic Arts developing for an open standard Android platform, as opposed to a closed Xbox or Sony PS4 platform.
As the source behind Android, Google already has a solid foundation of developer relationships and can promote its gaming console alongside its established Google Play store and services. It has the ability to reach a mass audience, not just gamers.
Scott Steinberg, CEO and lead analyst at technology and video game industry consulting firm TechSavvy, said: “Google will do everything in its power to leverage its weight, it’ll see the battle through and make sure there’s a TKO (technical knockout) in the end.”
The Wall Street Journal claimed that Google plans to re-launch its ill-fated Nexus Q, which was unveiled at Google I/O 2012. The orb-shaped device allows users to stream media from mobile devices to nearby speakers and TVs, but was quickly yanked from the market.
Although rumours suggest the Nexus Q could make a comeback, Google isn’t likely to re-brand it as a gaming device, according to Steinberg. “I think they would go big with branding on the console,” Steinberg said, “giving the product its own identity”.
Buried within the new pre-release Apple documentation is a new “Game Controller Framework”. The document describes reference designs for gamepads, as well as a simple API that developers can use to connect the gamepads to one of Apple’s operating systems and map the different buttons to game controls.
The documentation calls for two different types of controllers. (That’s them up there at the top of the post.) The first is a formfitting gamepad that connects directly to an Apple product, say an iPhone, leaving the screen visible. The second “extended” gamepad connects wirelessly to a device, say a MacBook, and lets you control what’s on the screen.
One of the most compelling explanations for the underdevelopment of the Apple TV is that you wouldn’t be able to do much with a full world of apps. Apple’s existing Apple TV remote is too stoically minimalist to do much beyond play and pause, and the touch gaming experience doesn’t easily transfer to a television without a full-on controller. Being the user experience obsessives they are, it’s easy to imagine that Tim Cook, Johny Ive, et al, weren’t going to offer more options for the box until they were sure they could find a way to make it unimpeachably user-friendly, either by building it themselves or by placing strict controls over third parties.
At the end of the day, manufacturers who can deliver cost-effective hardware – including fast processors and software – will be the winners. I also believe that consolidating processing power and software into a smart TV platform is the way ahead, as wireless is getting rid of cables and fast processors and Wi Fi combined are now getting rid of the need for separate media player boxes.