At the companies annual World Wide Developer Conference last week, Apple announced the latest update to the operating system that powers its Apple TV streaming box, tvOS 12. Arguably the largest addition to the update is the support of Dolby Atmos, one of the highest quality surround sound formats on the market today. While the announcement may have seemed trivial to the average consumer, the additional support of Dolby Atmos makes the Apple TV a must-buy for most home theater aficionados.
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The Beginnings of Apple TV
Apple first unveiled the Apple TV on January 9, 2007, minutes before revealing the iPhone. At the time, Steve Jobs had thought both announcements were worthy of special treatment. The move was marketed as a whole new way to experience entertainment in your home, and Jobs thought the Apple TV would do for the living room what the iPod had done for music.
At launch, the device, which was at first called iTV, was literally an iPod for your TV. It came with a 40GB hard drive, and required users to plug it into their computers and sync the box with iTunes. It was released at a relatively high starting price of $299.
A year after its announcement, in January 2008, Apple released a major software update for the device. The update completely removed the need for users to plug in their Apple TVs into a computer, instead allowing for streaming or purchasing of content on iTunes right from the device. It also added support for YouTube, allowing users to easily stream free content from the internet to their TVs. This marked the first time consumers were able to stream YouTube content directly to a television.
In September 2010, Apple unveiled the second generation Apple TV, which heavily focused on streaming and featured a significantly smaller form factor (even smaller than today’s model). The device, which was the first to feature what is now known as tvOS, was heavily marketed around AirPlay, a new feature that allowed users to effortlessly beam audio and video content from their other Apple devices to their television. It also added Netflix support, allowing an easy way for users to stream a library of content to their device for a small fee. It was also significantly more affordable, starting at $99.
The Hobby Phase and the Death of Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs was convinced TV was Apple’s next place to dominate following the iPhone and iPad. So much so, that he revealed to his biographer Walter Issacson that he believed he had ‘cracked it’, and designed a revolutionary television far better than currently available devices.
However, when Jobs passed away in October 2011, Tim Cook seemingly scrapped the TV project. While little is known about the details surrounding the decision, Cook began to refer to ‘TV’ as a hobby for Apple, not a core part of its’ product strategy. This led to the Apple TV being left alone for a number of years, with no hardware updates until a small revision in January 2013.
During this large break in development, Apple did slowly add more services to the device, such as Hulu and HBO. In March 2015, Apple lowered the price of the box to just $69. In the meantime, competition in the streaming-box space heated up dramatically. Roku quickly found footing as a leader in the industry with the most robust set of content, while Google and Amazon made multiple products dedicated to TV streaming.
While this was happening, the TV industry went through an important transformation. Following the rapid spread of smartphones and streaming services, 4K became the new standard for TVs. The resolution is four times greater than that of a full-HD display. Additionally, new color standards such as HDR began to take precedence. Apple’s TV offering still only supported 1080p, and without any form of App Store, was falling dramatically behind the competition.
The TV Project
Around 2014, Apple had a new idea. The company was quietly working on a significantly improved Apple TV with a new remote and App Store, but wanted to make an even bigger splash. The same way that Apple had used the iPod as a vehicle to create iTunes and shake-up the music industry, the company wanted to shake-up the cable industry.
Apple began having serious discussions with cable providers about creating a bundle of channels that users could subscribe to from Apple. This bundle would have included Disney, Fox, and CBS’s most popular networks and content, as well as a number of other smaller channels from companies like Time Warner. Users would have been able to pay a significantly lower fees than cable alternatives, and have access to live networks on all their devices including the new Apple TV, which would incorporate the channels as app icons on the home screen.
Apple had also wanted to get footing in the streaming industry, hoping to compete primarily with Netflix. The deals would have allowed Apple access to the complete content catalogues of the respective networks in addition to live content.
The cable industry, however, got worried. When the record-industry agreed to allow the iTunes Store, it was in a piracy-crisis and gave Apple significant discounts. The Apple of today, however is a behemoth, and the cable industry is not in as dire straights. As such, many members of the industry decided to hold-back Apple from acquiring streaming rights and instead began populating the market with smaller companies first, such as DirecTV Now and SlingTV.
Apple TV 4
After a number of delays, Apple failed to secure the deals it felt necessary to create a streaming service, and opted to release the new Apple TV without one. The Apple TV 4, unveiled on September 9, 2015, featured a new design, an incredibly improved operating system, redesigned remote, and a new starting price of $149.
The new remote was a particular driving point of the new device; it feature a new touch pad, a gyroscope for playing games, and Siri support. Apple also finally introduced an App Store, allowing for third-party developers to easily create TV experiences.
The biggest flaw of the new device, however, was its lack of 4K and HDR support. It started at $149, significantly higher than all other main stream streaming boxes, and didn’t feature the most important technologies of modern home theaters. Many TV and tech aficionados condemned the device for it’s lack of support for clearly important modern technologies.
Apple TV 4K & Dolby Atmos
Apple finally addressed these issues last September with the introduction of the fifth-generation Apple TV, the Apple TV 4K. The device features an improved processor and full 4K and HDR support. The additions resulted in critical-praise of the device, with many calling it the best streaming device on the market.
One of the most significant additions to the Apple TV 4K was support for Dolby Vision, Dolby’s high quality media format for the 4K generation. Many consider this the superior format for encoding videos in today’s home theater world, and while the addition made this the pick for most home theater users, many had one item left on their checklist, Dolby Atmos.
Dolby Atmos is the audio equivalent of Dolby Vision, ie. it is Dolby’s sound profiling standard that is considered to be the best on the market. To this day, there is no streaming device that supports both Vision and Atmos, until now. Because, with tvOS 12, Apple TV will finally support both Vision and Atmos, creating what is clearly the leading streaming box on the market. Apple will automatically upgrade all of its 4K content to support Atmos when available for free.
The move will solidify Apple as the go-to-purchase for high-end TV users, and will also make iTunes the best digital marketplace for buying 4K media. With high-end users locked in, Apple may be in the perfect position to reignite its’ efforts to completely revolutionize the TV experience, from the hardware all the way to the content.
Are you an Apple TV owner? We would love to hear your comments around your experience.