How Apple will takeover the living room

About two year ago, in my living room, I swaped my noisy MythTV Linux based XPC by a MacMini running EyeTV with an EPG subscription and connected to analog cable TV with an Elgato TV Tuner Stick. The MacMini was connected using DVI to an 51″ Plasma screen. EyeTV integrated with FrontRow and the Apple Remote. I could browse my music library, play live TV, see the Movie trailers fromt the Apple site. It was great.

Then I couldn’t resist buying an Apple TV. It synced over-the-air with my iMac, so I could play podcast, photos, videos in HD Ready over the component connection of my plasma screen. My Apple TV was connected with the optical connection to a Yamaha Natural Sound 7.1 Home Theatre Receiver. I could play my music in full digital from the MP3 or AAC file to the speakers.

Then, with a US voucher, I managed to setup my Apple TV with a US account and started renting HD movies with 5.1 sound, complete TV Series, and more music. All from my couch. It was still great… However to program TV show recording, I had to switch from the Apple TV to the Mac Mini : from my DVI input to my component input on the Plasma, from one input to another on my amplifier, from one Apple Remote to another, and from the Apple TV interface to FrontRow, to EyeTV… that was silly. I quickly realized that I could record a show on the MacMini, let eyeTV compress it to H264 and upload it to my iTunes Library. As my Apple TV was syncing videos with iTunes Library, I could watch my recording from my Apple TV, offering a somehow integrated experience. But I missed the high quality of the original recording. On the good side, I could also watch my recording with my iPod Video and iPhone. Still, the whole experience was a bit clumsy and I had to maintain and update two devices for what should obviously be integrated in one, like does Windows Media Center on the dark side.

Now let observe the Apple TV back panel. You’ll notice an mysterious unused USB connector… So here is my prediction :

Apple will release a USB Stick Tuner, compatible with DVB-T SD and HD (which require no re-compression) for it’s Apple TV and will add an EPG to the interface.

Why the delay ? Apple is probably waiting for DVB-T/DVB-C to become mainstream as they’ll probably want the experience to be qualitative and recorded digital broadcast (Mpeg 2 or Mpeg 4) are identical to the live signal. The codec in Mpeg 4 can even be H264, just like Apple Movies.

It’s not in Apple style to catch up with competition, so now let’s imagine what Apple could add to this product. First they would maybe release not one but several USB Tuner Sticks. One for Freeview (digital terrestrial TV), one for DVB-C (digital cable TV), one for analog, with an hardware H264 chip like the Turbo 264. You could switch them when you move from one channel provider (cable, satellite, Terrestrial) to another, or from SD to HD, or from one standard for encoding to another (still te be invented). Much better than a single build-in interface…

Your Apple TV is in reality a complete, Macintosh computer hidden in a tiny pizza box, running MacOS X (Tiger). When not recording or playing, it could run a background process that would compress the huges Mpeg 2 or Mpeg 4 recording to pristine Quicktime H.264 then sync them with your main iTunes library … which in turn would sync with your iPod Video, iPod Touch, and iPhone over USB. So you wouldn’t even have to do any action to have your favorite recording in your pockets.

As it knows your Apple ID, your Apple TV could also register itself with MobileMe Back To My Mac service and run a QuickTime streaming server. You would be able to stream recordings (those just compressed in H.264) over the Internet from any iTunes client, and even from your iPhone over a Wi-fi connection, just like with the SlingMedia Mobile service or for your music with Simplify Media.

An option would allow the Apple TV (which hard drive is limited to either 40 or 160 gigabytes) to store the QuickTime files ready for streaming to a 1 terabyte Time-Capsule and a firmware update would add iTunes server services to the Time-Capsule.

When watching your recording on your Apple TV, you’ll use the Apple Remote for control, but Apple would add TV show and EPG control in Remote for iPhone (which already control playing Music Videos on your Apple TV when they are in an iTunes synced playlist).

For those without tuner, you could stream your USB webcam video like with Remote Buddy.

Apple would also release an EPG client software for the iPhone that would store your recording settings on MobileMe. Of course your Apple TV would sync with MobileMe too. So it would be possible to program recording from anywhere in the world.

Without recording anything, it would be possible to stream live TV from your Apple TV to any Mac on your home LAN thanks to 802.11n bandwith (like you can do it today with music on Airport Express). From anywhere in the world, you’ll be able to watch a lower resolution, switch channels, start a recording… from your iPhone over wi-fi or any iTunes client on MacOS X or Windows. Just like with Sony’ LocationFree TV and the PSP. In September Sony will launch PlayTV a HD DVB-T tuner with DVR software for the PlayStation 3. They recently launched their HD Movies online store in the US. So you’d better hurry up Apple !

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