On Apple TV Special Apps, Sports, And The Slow Bleeding Of Cable

Buried today in the iOS 4.3 release is an unmentioned, but very interesting update for the Apple TV: access to both MLB.tv and NBA League Pass. Yes, the live sports are coming to the Apple TV!

That’s great news for Apple TV owners, but such functionality has actually been available for some time on the rival boxes by Roku. Still, the ramifications of this are potentially huge because the lack of sports content has been the one point used over and over again in arguments against these new wave of Internet-powered set-top boxes killing cable. Between this, Roku, and Xbox Live getting ESPN content, we’re definitely getting closer to a full-on cable revolt.

The one element still missing from these boxes is the crown jewel: NFL content. The moment NFL Sunday Ticket launches on one of these boxes — and eventually, it will — you’ll hear screams of pure terror emanating from the headquarters of each of the cable companies. I can’t wait.

But with regard to today’s Apple TV update specifically, there’s something else interesting going on. While Apple still isn’t quick to talk about it, Apple TV does run a variation of iOS. And that has led everyone to wonder when there will be apps on the Apple TV?

The truth is that there already are apps! That’s exactly what MLB.tv and NBA League Pass are. And it’s what Netflix on the device was before that. And YouTube before that. They may not look like iPhone or iPad apps, but they’re apps. The main difference is that they’re made by Apple (with the help of the companies involved).

What peopler really want, of course, is the ability to run third-party apps on the device. And today’s new apps have some worrying that Apple plans to keep the Apple TV platform completely closed — as in, only they can make apps, even with third-party content.

My hunch is that this isn’t the case. I have no knowledge about this either way, but just think about it: the Apple TV running third-party apps has the potential to be absolutely huge. The next big thing after the iPhone and iPad. Why would Apple not embrace that?

Also, Google is gearing up to launch their apps marketplace for Google TV. So far, that device hasn’t been a threat to devices like the Apple TV. But then again, Apple TV hasn’t yet been a true threat to cable. There’s a much bigger picture for all of this. And while sports is one key, apps are the real game-changer. Again, why would Apple not embrace that?

They will. For more proof, see what they’ve doing with the iPad. Alongside the iPad 2, Apple announced two important things: the opening of AirPlay to third-party apps and an HDMI accessory to hook up the iPad to your HDTV. With the former, apps can now stream any and all video content to your Apple TV to play on your television. With the latter, you can run any app on your TV.

Naturally, these apps run through the iPad won’t be optimized for the television, but the fact that not only is Apple allowing you to do it, but providing tools and accessories for it, shows they’re not against apps and apps’ content on the TV. The full-on push is likely just a matter of building out a robust SDK for the Apple TV, similar to what they did for the iPhone and iPad.

There are other challenges in this space since it’s not just a matter of scaling up existing apps 2x, because televisions come in all shapes and sizes. But they’ll figure it out.

And when they do, cable is in big, big trouble.

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