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AppleTV SDK? Please say yes.

I’m writing this in flight, Grand Rapids to Denver, connecting from there to SFO and WWDC 2011. Screen typing isn’t the most fun thing in the world, but the small size of the iPad, combined with its shape (no fold open screen like on a laptop, which would only collide with the reclined seat in front of me) makes it reasonably practical.

Lots of people precede WWDC with predictions and wish lists… I’m going to use this blog for a justification, in other words, why the thing I’m hoping for might make sense.

The surprise I’m hoping for is an Apple TV SDK. Not that I’m the biggest Apple TV fan… not only do I not have an Apple TV, I don’t even have a TV that will accept its HDMI connection.

But man, would I get on board quickly if there were an SDK.

And no, not to play Angry Birds on the TV. If anything, the potential for general-purpose apps on the TV is badly overstated, and has been for years, if not decades. QUBE, WebTV, various cable box standards (what was that Java one that I used to write about at java.net and was roundly ignored?)… the space has been an unbroken string of failures.

But let’s narrow our foucus. What if the SDK was optimized for streaming AV content, and providing just enough UI for browsing and choosing content (i.e., nothing more than Electronic Programming Guides [EPGs]), ignoring most of the power and elegance of the underlying iOS frameworks? What if Apple only allowed apps in this genre, rejecting anything that wasn’t an AV streaming client?

It would be awesome.

Here’s the thing: the iPhone and iPad gold rushes have motivated a lot of content providers to make their stuff available in iOS formats. Movies, TV shows, live sports, niche programming, tons of stuff. More variety and depth than you can get from a cable TV subscription, without the tyranny of the cable company taking away your favorite channel in a carriage dispute, with no recourse for viewers. And it’s a la carte: buying the Major League Baseball app doesn’t require you pay for a CourtTV or Lifetime app.

Yeah, you see where I’m going with this. Using apps as a content delivery platform, Apple TV could grab a lot of those monthly subscriptions that are currently going to cable and satellite television. And with providers taking 70% of content subscriptions sold through in-app purchase (or 100%, if users can be convinced to purchase via the provider’s website instead), there’s huge money to be made in cutting out the middle man.

More content for viewers, just the stuff they actually want, and more money for the people who actually make the stuff. Win-win. The only loser is the middle man – the hated cable companies – who get cut out of the equation because they’re no longer necessary.

So what’s the case against? Apple is careful to pick its battles, and this may not be a hornet’s nest it wants to kick up this year. Let’s war-game it: what would cablers do in response? They’re dreadfully afraid of becoming “dumb pipes” (even though that is clearly their destiny), so they can be counted on to fight this as hard as possible. They might want to block the offending streams, but the nature of HTTP Live Streaming makes that difficult: you can’t just switch off port 80, nor can you block content delivery networks without collateral damage. So they could be counted on to revive the “content providers are getting a free ride off us” spin.

More importantly, cable companies by their nature are whores of local governments, and could get legislative and regulatory attention by pointing out how much cable fees go into local government coffers. An Internet TV world is one without public access channels, without the goddamned useless “city council meeting that lasts forever” channel, and who would want to live in a world like that? Well, pretty much everyone, actually, but good luck getting a bureaucrat to listen to that when their paycheck is partially funded by Charter.

Local cable franchises are a relic, but a lot of parties have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Apple would have to be eager for a thousand little battles to pull this off.

Provided, of course, that cable sees it coming. They might not.

Comment (1)

  1. cmoesel

    Why wait for the Apple TV SDK? This has been available through the Roku SDK for some time now. I’d encourage you to check it out:
    http://www.roku.com/developer

    The Roku is a great little box, and superior to Apple TV in my opinion. And as you suggest, the open SDK has really allowed for some great apps and some great content on my TV. I don’t have cable and I don’t miss it!

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