Can Apple Win the TV OS Wars?

By technology standards, the wait for a new Apple TV has taken somewhere between an aeon and an eternity, give or take an epoch or two. But the wait ended in mid-September as Apple rolled out a new version of its Apple TV set-top box.

The new device represents a substantial overall of the previous Apple TV, but, on balance, still signifies a fairly conservative approach to TV. Apple, for instance, declined to offer 4K streaming support despite the fact that many major smart TV apps are embracing the higher-resolution format. The new box won’t be joined with a new video offering, but instead will support the existing universe of streaming video choices (though whether the new device will support Amazon Prime video remains to be seen).

Still, there were some big improvements under the hood, including a bump up in processing power to an A8 chip and more internal memory, with options to choose a 32GB or 64GB version of the set-top box. Apple also integrated voice control via Siri, its (not always reliable) virtual digital assistant.

A new remote that features a touchscreen and Nintendo Wii-like gestures was also demonstrated for quickly navigating through the Apple TV’s menu. (The remote doesn’t appear to come with a handstrap—a lesson Nintendo learned it needed to incorporate after users threw their controllers into their TVs.) Apple TV will also support third-party game controllers as well as remote control via iOS devices.

The more significant update—and the one that carries the most intriguing potential—is the creation of a new smart TV operating system dubbed tvOS. Similar to iOS, tvOS will host an app store where third-party developers can write apps for the new Apple TV. With tvOS, Apple aims to do for TVs what it did for mobile devices: make it a platform for consumers to access novel apps and for developers to create new experiences.

None of this is particularly novel, of course. Smart TV vendors like Panasonic and Samsung have tried to create a developer’s network around their smart TV platforms for years now, with only modest success. Set-top boxes like Amazon’s Fire TV support third-party game developers. Unlike its success in smartphones and tablets, Apple is not a market leader in streaming boxes. Samsung has sold more smart TVs in the past two years than Apple has sold Apple TV’s since the introduction of the product, so tvOS developers will be hawking their wares to a relatively small install base relative to Apple’s competitors, especially if older Apple TVs are unable to update their own operating systems to the new version.

Still, Apple has a passionate and engaged user community and Apple TV users may prove more receptive to shopping in a tvOS app store as the offerings expand and the experience matures. Integration between iOS apps and Apple TV apps could be a major driver for adoption. Apple TV doesn’t need to be a game-changer to be successful, but the new model does suggest that Apple’s “hobby” is still taking modest steps towards being a full-time job. If the iOS developer community runs with it though, Apple will be well positioned in the Smart TV OS wars.