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New Hardware, Same TV: Why the New Apple TV Will Feel Familiar

Apple will open its TV box up to developers, which is great. But Apple TV is no iPhone.

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Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

The case for the new Apple TV becoming a Really Big Deal is simple and compelling: Apple is set to open up its set-top box to outside developers.

When Apple did that for the iPhone in 2008, a year after launch, the iPhone was transformed from a great smartphone into a once-in-a-lifetime product.

This is a pretty strong argument. Who’s going to bet against the combination of Apple’s hardware and the Earth’s developers?

And who’s going to bet against the future? In 2008, iPhone users were years away from understanding the impact of Uber, or Snapchat, or Instagram on their phones. Because Uber, Snapchat and Instagram didn’t exist in 2008.

But I’ll take the wager: I think letting developers have their way with Apple TV will be interesting — but not transformative.

The iPhone, and mobile phones in general, gave us the ability to carry computers in our pockets, and that combination of personalization and mobility opened up whole new worlds. The Apple TV will be a computer that connects the TV to the Internet. And we’ve had those forever.

We’ve also had a sneak preview of what developers can do when they connect Apple devices to a TV. And so far it’s been uninspiring.

If you go back several years, you’ll see lots of people speculating about the ways developers might deploy AirPlay, the system that links iPhone and iPad apps to TVs. But no one has seemed very interested in doing anything interesting with AirPlay. At best, AirPlay has provided a workaround for apps like Amazon’s video app, which hasn’t been let into Apple TV.

Using AirPlay to mirror video from your iPad, or Clash of Clans from your iPhone, isn’t a seamless experience, but it works well enough. I streamed a couple seasons of “The Good Wife” from Amazon to my Apple TV and it worked just fine. It would be better if Apple lets Amazon build an app directly for the Apple TV, but it won’t be revelatory.

And there are lots of video apps that work well on your iPhone that shouldn’t benefit much from an Apple TV app. Periscope is good at delivering a spontaneous burst of fun to your hand. But it might feel underwhelming on a 42-inch screen.

My near-term hope for Apple TV is that Apple makes a big leap forward with search.

Voice sounds cool, but not crucial. What I really want is for Siri to tell me that the third season of “Banshee” is available on the Cinemax app, the second is available for rent on iTunes, and the first season is streaming for free for Amazon Prime members. That’s a very solvable problem, and it’s apparently why Apple bought Matcha, a TV discovery app, a couple of years ago. So that will be nice.

The big hope, of course, is that Apple TV eventually becomes a flexible feast that allows me to pick and choose the video — and bundles of video — that I want to watch, when I want to watch it.

But that’s a biz dev problem, not a hardware problem. And the fact that Apple has been circling around TV for years without getting into the subscription business — that pay TV service may show up next year, maybe — tells you how hard that will be.

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