My Wishlist for the Apple TV

My family owns two Apple TVs.  The Apple TV is a $99 set top streaming box that connects to your TV.  It can display content from iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and so forth.  There’s also a great feature called AirPlay, which allows you to stream from your iPhone, iPad, or Mac directly to the TV (this is basically the only feature my family uses).  All things considered, it’s a great piece of hardware.  But it could be so much more.  Steve Jobs once famously said that the Apple TV was just a hobby for Apple (since the market wasn’t quite ready for it).  Times have changed, however, and Tim Cook has said that the Apple TV isn’t just a hobby anymore.  There are lots of people hoping for big improvements to the Apple TV this fall, so here’s my list of features I’m hoping for.

1.  Third-Party Channels
Right now the Apple TV has different “channels,” which are very similar to apps.  For example, there’s a Music channel, a Movies channel, a Netflix channel, and the list goes on.  However, the only way for a company (such as Netflix) to get an channel is to work directly with Apple.  There is no SDK (software development kit) for developers to make channels on their own, and no store to download channels from.  In order for the Apple TV to really hit it big, this SDK and store need to happen.  For example, there is no Amazon Prime Instant Video channel on the Apple TV.  Therefore, we have to AirPlay from the Instant Video iPad app in order to use the service.  This works well enough, but it’s hardly ideal.  Opening up an SDK would also open up a whole new world of innovation.  Allowing developers to think outside the set top box could result in some really cool things, such as Apple TV games that use your iPhone as the controller (to be fair, some iPhone apps can already do this, but I’m sure it would work better if the Apple TV was more heavily involved).  Unfortunately, I don’t think this feature is going to happen this year.  If Apple intended to release an Apple TV SDK, they would almost certainly have to do so before the hardware was launched, so that there would be good channels available on the store the day it hit the market.  The perfect time to do this would have been at WWDC.  Since we didn’t see an SDK at WWDC, I don’t think we will actually see third-party channels this fall.

2.  A Real Cable Deal
My family has Dish Network.  Generally speaking, we’re happy with it, but there are a ton of channels we never watch.  As the Macworld Podcast’s Chris Breen noted, it would be awesome if Apple could partner with, say, Comcast, and have an Apple TV exclusive cable package.  This package would be relatively small, having only the most popular 30 or 40 channels (Discovery, History, AMC, etc.), but it would also be relatively inexpensive.  The key feature that really sets this apart from Netflix, however, is that it would also include locals channels – which of course includes local sports.  Live sports are arguably the biggest thing holding many people back from ditching cable entirely in lieu of Netflix.  I think my family would seriously consider switching to this Apple TV package.

3.  Supersized Today View
In iOS 7, there’s this really cool feature of notification center called the Today View.  Basically, it shows you your calendar, reminders, stocks, and the weather.  Even better, in iOS 8, third-party app developers will be able to create Today View widgets, to give you even more info (like sports scores).  Since the Apple TV is connected to a large screen, I think it has huge potential for this kind of glanceable information.  What I’m thinking of is a huge dashboard that you can look at first thing in the morning.  Instead of waking up and having to check four different apps to see how your day is going to pan out, you could just see one big screen on your Apple TV.  This would be similar to what morning shows do on The Weather Channel.  They have their main show playing in the majority of the screen, but there’s other stuff on there as well.  At the bottom is a news ticker; on the sidebar, a brief weather summary and flight delay information.  I would love to wake up and turn on the TV to see this dashboard.  I want a breaking news ticker on the bottom, and weather and traffic on the sides.  In the middle could be lots of boxes scrolling my texts, emails, Twitter feed, and so on.

And finally, I hope as much of this as possible will happen through software updates, and not hardware updates.  As cool as these features would be, I find it hard to believe my family would spend $200 to replace the two Apple TVs we already have.  Especially when most of us would probably benefit from watching less TV in the first place.  ••

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Podcasts: The Forgotten Medium

We live in a media-centric world.  Everywhere we go, we encounter TV, radio, magazines, and newspapers.  We spend our time listening to music, watching movies, and reading articles on the web.  However, there is another medium, which has been around for awhile, that doesn’t get the attention that I think it deserves.  The medium?  Podcasts.

Podcasts are great in a lot of ways.  Since they are purely audio, you can listen to podcasts while doing other things, such as housework or cooking (contrary to popular belief, it is borderline impossible to watch TV and do something else productive at the same time).  Another great thing about podcasts is that new content is nearly limitless.  Whereas your favorite band probably only releases a CD every three years or so, your favorite podcast often releases new content every week.  Podcasts are also great because you can learn something.  Music is great (don’t get me wrong, I enjoy music and listen to a lot of it), but most of the time its value is purely in entertainment.  Podcasts can be entertaining and educational.  Finally, I like podcasts because – as I’ve stated before – I tend to get really tired of my music, so it’s nice to have other audio content that’s always new.  Now that I’ve talked about podcasts in general, I’d like to highlight my two favorite shows.

The first is Stuff You Should Know, a podcast from HowStuffWorks.com.  This is a great show if you just like learning things.  They post two shows a week (Tuesdays and Thursdays), and cover everything from “How the Space Race Worked” to “Why is Venice So Wet?” to “Archaeology in a Nutshell” (just to name off the three most recent episodes).  The podcast has a very conversational, colloquial style: just two guys, Josh and Chuck, talking.  The show’s content is fascinating by itself, but the Josh and Chuck style really puts it over the top.

The second show I really enjoy is TechHive’s* Clockwise podcast.  This is a tech podcast that is under 30 minutes or you pizza is free – or so they’ve said.  There are two hosts, Dan and Jason, and each week they have two guests, who are almost always members of the PCWorld/Macworld/TechHive staff.  It’s also neat that many guests end up being on the show more than once, so eventually you’ll even recognize the guests.  Each person brings a tech topic, and they go around the table clockwise (aha!) and everyone puts in their two cents.  The conversational tone is still there, but the content is a little less wordy and more condensed, since they are focused on keeping the podcast at a reasonable time limit.  At first I didn’t get this we-don’t-want-to-waste-your-time approach.  I choose to listen to this podcast, and I don’t mind if it’s a little long.  But as time went on, I learned to appreciate their watchful eye on the clock.  Some podcasts (including SYSK) can be 45 minutes to an hour, but I found that 30 minutes is the perfect time frame.  If you’re interested in technology, this show is a fantastic way to get tech news each week (right after this blog, that is).

So now that I’ve shared my favorite podcasts, what are yours?  Feel free to fire off suggestions to me and each other, and maybe I’ll check out what you recommend.  Happy listening!  ••

*Update 11/12/14: Clockwise is no longer a part of TechHive, but it lives on as a part of Relay FM.  I’ve updated the link above.