Word on the street is that Apple is planning on introducing a long-awaited major overhaul to the Apple TV at its September 9th event.
If the rumours are true, the new Apple TV will be a $US200-ish machine with an intriguing new motion-based remote, a version of the Siri virtual digital assistant, and, most importantly, access to a full-fledged App Store, taking it well beyond the 60-some-odd carefully chosen media partners it currently supports.
In other words, the new Apple TV will be a full-fledged computer — or at least, a full-fledged iPad — in your living room.
If those rumours pan out, it means that we’re nearing the finish line of a race between Microsoft and Apple that started way back in the nineties.
The first Apple “TV”: Only in Disneyland
After Steve Jobs left Apple in the early nineties, CEO John Sculley tried to expand the company beyond the Macintosh computer with a series of failed consumer electronic devices, including portable CD players, personal digital assistants, digital cameras — and a set-top TV device.
That device, called the Apple Interactive Television Box, never actually made it to market, except for a trial run in as many as a thousand Disneyland Hotel rooms in 1995, proving that it was close to ready for sale. Apple’s box would have provided the ability to pause and rewind live TV, four years before TiVo hit the market.
Apple’s small-screen ambitions kind of fell by the wayside after that, until the Apple TV hit the market in 2007.
After an initial marketing push, though, even the Apple TV fell by the wayside in favour of the iPhone money-making machine: The last time the Apple TV got a major refresh was 2012, and then a mild update in 2013.
Microsoft’s WebTV failed to set the world on fire
Microsoft got a little further than that. In 1997, Microsoft purchased hot Silicon Valley startup WebTV, founded by ex-Apple engineer Steve Perlman, for $US425 million, with Bill Gates himself participating in the negotiation process.
At that point, WebTV had about 150,000 subscribers for its epynomous service and set-top box that basically provided a web browser and email on your TV screen. The idea was to give access to the Internet to those who weren’t geeky enough to have an actual PC.
At the time, Microsoft was riding high off the massive success of Windows 95. Gates had recently identified the Internet as the world-changing force it would soon prove itself to be, and he wanted Microsoft, and by extension, Microsoft Windows, to be a big part of it.
When the acquisition was announced, Microsoft shared plans to eventually put Microsoft Windows and Internet Explorer on the device. It wasn’t a huge surprise, given Microsoft’s laser focus on Windows at that point.
WebTV was a never a huge success, but it had some hardcore fans. In 2001, it was rebranded to MSN TV, to include Hotmail and MSN Messenger support. In 2013, it was finally shut down with little fanfare.
But the legacy of WebTV is with us today: Members of the WebTV team contributed to the Xbox, Xbox 360, and Xbox One video game consoles.
Microsoft took some other shots at putting a full PC in the living room. Most notable was Media Center, a version of Windows that supported a remote control and multimedia functions like DVD playback and TV broadcasting. It never took off, and with Windows 10, Microsoft has eliminated it from Windows.
The Xbox Trojan horse
The original Xbox console came about because Microsoft was worried about Sony’s PlayStation 2, which was enticing developers away from making games for Windows.
Plus, with the inclusion of a DVD player, Sony made no bones about the fact that it saw the PlayStation 2 as its own first step towards making a video game console into a media hub.
With the Xbox, built on top of the same DirectX technology that powers Windows games (but without anything we’d recognise as “Windows,”), Microsoft made a credible play to keep its developers happy while providing a roadmap towards trying that whole “computer-in-the-living-room” thing again.
It was risky. The video game market is notoriously hard to break into. But it worked, with over 24 million Xbox consoles sold over its lifespan.
The Xbox was established as a serious player in the market. And by appealing to gamers, Microsoft finally had a real beachhead in the living room.
The follow-up Xbox 360 went a step further: In addition to games, it had a bunch of video apps, including Netflix and Hulu. With the Xbox 360, Microsoft was perpetually walking a fine line between selling it as a video game console and as a multimedia hub. Eventually, Microsoft even came out with Internet Explorer for the Xbox 360, basically revisiting the WebTV concept.
But, again, it worked, in part because the Xbox 360 beat Sony’s PS3 to market by a full year. The Xbox 360 was the best-selling system of its generation with 84 million units sold.
But it still wasn’t the full Windows-on-TV experience that Microsoft had been looking for.
Then came the Xbox One…
With the Xbox One, which came out in 2013, Microsoft got cocky and put the gaming focus on the back burner.
When Microsoft first announced the console in 2013, it focused mainly on the Xbox One’s multimedia capabilities, leaving the video games as an afterthought. A lot of gamers who had supported the Xbox 360 found this alienating.
Then, Microsoft announced the Xbox One would require the motion-sensing, movement-tracking Kinect sensor, meaning that the system would cost $US500 at retail — $US100 more than the Sony PlayStation 4.
In exchange for the higher price tag, Microsoft promised that the new system, plus Kinect, would provide an unprecedented user experience, including immersive games and television shows that you could actually interact with. Plus, it shipped with Bing-powered search and the Internet Explorer browser preinstalled.
This was finally going to be Microsoft’s perfect living room computer: Games, media, and the Web, all in one box, and attached to the TV.
Except for one problem: Gamers hated that idea. The backlash was huge.
Six months after it launched, Microsoft nixed the Kinect requirement for the Xbox One, and started selling the console minus the sensor for a more competitive $US399. Microsoft’s press events and public appearances after that primarily focused on games.
But it may have been too late. The Kinect drama, and that initial higher pricetag, is one likely reason why the Xbox One is getting creamed by Sony’s PlayStation 4 — according to VGChartz, people have bought almost 14 million Xbox Ones, compared with nearly 25 million PlayStation 4s.
In addition, the Kinect has basically fallen into irrelevance, with no developer wanting to make games for an accessory that most people didn’t have. Microsoft closed the doors on the studios that were making the interactive TV content last year, too.
That isn’t stopping Microsoft from trying yet again. This November, Microsoft is finally giving every single one of the estimated 15 million Xbox One consoles its sold a full upgrade to Windows 10 under the hood via a downloadable software update.
That means there will be about 14 million Microsoft Windows PCs, optimised for media and gaming but also capable of productivity and web browsing, attached to the television. It’s the fulfillment of the plan that Microsoft originally made way back in 1997 with WebTV.
The war for the couch
Come this Holiday season, consumers will have two options for real computers that attach to their TVs: The new Apple TV, and the newly souped-up Xbox One.
In a weird way, they’re going to be a lot alike, especially if the new Apple TV remote is also a game controller, as some have surmised.
And they have their own advantages, too. Apple’s App Store is the marketplace of choice for many developers, not least because it tends to be a lot more lucrative than stores for other platforms. With an App Store, the Apple TV could get a lot more flexible and useful, filling in the gaps in its library very quickly.
Meanwhile, the Microsoft Xbox One has some of the biggest, most lucrative franchises in gaming, plus the Xbox Live online gaming service, plus tight integration with Windows 10 computers. Apple is good for a lot of things, but gaming, outside of the Angry Birds-style free-to-play game, isn’t exactly its forte.
If anything really makes a difference here, it would be that Apple TV is explicitly named and marketed as something to help you watch TV. Plus, it has the partnerships with TV networks like HBO and Showtime to back it up.
Meanwhile, Microsoft’s core gamer demographic for the Xbox One has traditionally reacted very poorly to anything that takes away from its focus on playing games.
If Microsoft can’t sell the Xbox One as a media device, even with the Windows 10 upgrade, then this long, 17-year hike to getting Windows in the living room will have all been for nothing.
And if the Apple TV ends up back in its current position as a footnote in the company’s history, even after all of this, it might mean that the idea of a computer for your television was just never very good in the first place.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.