Software, Hardware, Silverware

How Apple Wins the Next Console War

It’s popular to speculate on where Apple is going with television. Universally these predictions are always wrong. They ramp up right before a big Apple event, the event comes and goes, and Apple neglects to even mention television. It would be foolish, then, for a sensible commentator such as I to take a turn. So here goes.

If you’d asked me a couple years ago what I thought Apple was going to do with television, I would have said something along the lines of a TiVo, but with Apple software so it wouldn’t be slow and irritating to use. I would have surmised that Apple would partner with a single cable provider in the United States and provide a tightly integrated experience combining DVR functionality and internet programming. But that’s entirely misguided.

Thing is, the little black box called Apple TV is Apple’s television strategy. When Steve Jobs announced “one more hobby” at the 2010 iPod event, he wasn’t announcing a stopgap before the real deal. This was it. This is it. Most people (myself included) missed it.

We’re accustomed to Apple entering a market and dramatically changing it. Macintosh. iPod. iPhone. iPad. Apple TV didn’t. It isn’t so different from other internet streaming devices we can connect to our televisions. Most of these have been available long before Apple TV, and Apple TV wasn’t dramatically different or better than any of them. We glanced past it and decided Apple’s grand television er… vision had to be still in the labs.

I don’t think Apple would keep this thing around for two and a half years if it wasn’t their ultimate plan1. In 2010, Apple unveiled a refined, core product that lacked in features but made up for it by working really, really well. As they are wont to do.

Those of us who own these little black boxes love ‘em. And it continues to get better. Services are added consistently every few months, and today we have a device that streams from the majority of services we want. Those we don’t have will come in time2.

But what’s next? Apps. Many of us were hoping for an SDK at WWDC. Obviously that didn’t happen, and in retrospect it’s clear why: Apple didn’t have time. In case you missed it, iOS 7 was a huge undertaking, and accomplishing it in 6 months meant pulling engineers away from other projects.

But some of the stuff announced as a part of iOS 7 at WWDC hint at the future of Apple TV. In particular: game controllers. Under the MFi3 program, Apple will be licensing the manufacture of official, standard game controllers with a common control set that game developers can easily support.

When iOS 7 ships in the fall, a companion build will drop for Apple TV. I expect it to include game controller support. And I expect to drop with it an SDK.

With the iPod touch, Apple accidentally dominated the handheld gaming market. Neither they no Nintendo could have predicted it, but it happened. iPod touch was affordable, the interface was exciting, the games were addictive, and it did a hell of a lot more than play games. Since and as a result, Apple has embraced games with Game Center and dozens of related API’s. The technical merits of those API’s notwithstanding, the shear volume of Apple customers out there demands that millions are using Game Center, and developers are writing for it.

Apple TV will accidentally (though less accidentally than in the case of the iPod touch) dominate the console gaming market. The OS update that brings the App Store to the TV will bring Game Center as well. Games will be the top the store’s charts4. More advanced, console-quality games will follow, but the beauty of the situation is that those aren’t even necessary.

The Wii unquestionably won the last console generation. It outsold the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360. It didn’t win because of its outstanding graphics performance or its high-quality games. In fact, most “gamers” passed it on for more “serious” consoles. The Wii won because it was affordable and because it was fun for non-“gamers”. People who’d never considered a game console before snapped them up. It was the first mass-market game console.

The story will be the same with Apple TV. Normal people will flock to the fun and addictive games we’ve grown to love on iOS. And they’ll flock to its price. The Xbox One is $499. The PlayStation 4 is $399. The Wii U is $299. The Apple TV is $200 cheaper than the least expensive next-generation console. Obviously the discrepancy is explained away entirely by hardware, but that’s moot.

This fall there’ll be a new Apple TV5. It’ll retain the affordable-for-all might-as-well-buy-two price point. It will run a new version of iOS with an App Store and Game Center. Older black box Apple TV’s will update to this new version. It will have support for a multitude of third party game controllers in all shapes, sizes, and price points (it might even come bundled with one or two). This holiday season, Apple will sell a shit-ton of them.

If Sony or Xbox or Nintendo were going for marketshare this round, they totally missed the point of the Wii’s success.

  1. The first generation Apple TV stuck around for three years so feel free to ignore everything I’m about to say. ↩︎

  2. Yes, even Amazon Instant Video. ↩︎

  3. “Made for i(Pod/Phone/Pad)”. ↩︎

  4. As they already are on touchscreen devices. ↩︎

  5. This is of course a prediction… ↩︎