Apple TV: Curation, Choice, and Closed Ecosystems

Apple made a few waves this month with one of the biggest additions to the Apple TV platforms since its launch, with new content coming from ABC News, PBS, AOL, and other outlets. And while it’s great to see the company expand its offerings, what we’re really looking forward to is the day when anyone can create a video app for Apple TV with the same frictionless experience as creating apps for the iPhone or iPad.

Granted, Apple has always defined its TV efforts as more a hobby than a business. Yet despite the outpouring of demand from video app developers for a fully featured Apple TV SDK, the Cupertino giant has yet to open up the playing field to all. Why? After all, the App Store for iOS devices is largely welcome to everybody, pending Apple’s internal app review.

Now, there are some practical reasons why Apple may not want to fully lay out the welcome mat just yet, but none affect the video app space. Apple TV has a relatively small amount of memory, which limits the number of apps it can store. But while might be a non-starter for gaming apps, streaming video apps don’t need to store the video itself…just the interface.

Also, some have speculated that Apple may prefer Apple TV work in conjunction with iOS apps as an extension rather than act as an additional app platform. Again, for most apps that would make sense. But streaming media is the one type of content that makes more sense to use on Apple TV than on iOS devices, so dedicated apps for that device make more sense than, say, Angry Birds.

And another theory is that Apple TV just hasn’t got enough units in the field to justify Apple’s attention to it with an SDK. But I’d argue access to content would help drive Apple TV units and therefore opening it up would do more to generate those numbers than a closed strategy ever will.

So for now, the only rationale behind not issuing an SDK is simply that Apple doesn’t want one, at least not yet. Instead, they’re taking a curated approach, choosing what they feel is the best, premium TV and movie content to feature…doing so while competing devices like the Roku, Chromecast, and Amazon’s Fire TV are all far more open to content developers.

Now, I support curation as much as the next guy, but when taken too far it quickly resembles something more akin to a walled garden, and that’s harder to get behind. Apple’s stance begins to look more like that of the traditional cable business…the very thing Apple TV is supposed to disrupt.

Viewers interested in products like Apple TV and its competitors are looking for choice. They’re tired of artificial restrictions placed between themselves and the content they want by middlemen. And those most fed up are cutting the cord away from cable and moving to the over-the-top providers.

It’s ironic that Apple would create a product designed for cord-cutters, and then restrict it with the same policies that drive that cord-cutting behavior in the first place. In fact, most people use Apple TV not for its content, but for the AirPlay streaming functionality to display content from their computers otherwise unavailable from Apple TV directly. In other words, they’re using Apple TV to get around the walled garden restrictions of Apple TV.

Is the company trying to protect iTunes movie/TV sales? I doubt it. Apple has opened the iOS app ecosystem to competing streaming music services with no concern over their iTunes Music Store impact.

Most likely, Apple TV as it stands today has been merely a test…a trail balloon used to learn how viewers would interact with it and how the hand-picked developers would create for it. We’ve all been waiting for a fully featured TV set from Apple for longer than we’ve been waiting on an SDK. Waiting until this TV set is ready for market before releasing an SDK makes sense, at least more sense than keeping the current iteration closed. And if not a full set, maybe there’s a new version of the bridge-like device coming.

Apple’s content chief Eddie Cue told attendees at the recent Code Conference to expect the best product lineup in 25 years in the immediate future. Given its track record over the last 10, that’s an awfully bold statement. Hopefully its TV move will be equally as bold.

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