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Apple TV: The Time for an Upgrade is Now

Sony Playstation Vita TV bow puts more pressure on Apple at Tuesday press conference

Another day, another Apple TV challenger.

Weeks after Google introduced the world to Chromecast, it was Sony Corp.’s turn, unveiling Sony Playstation Vita TV on Monday. The tiny set-top box will bring video and games to TV sets in Japan beginning in November, with a broader rollout likely still to come.

Timing comes just a day before a major Apple press conference, which has renewed speculation that we could see either an upgrade to the company’s settop TV box or maybe even the long-anticipated entry of an entirely new product meant to enable TV consumption.

While Apple CEO Tim Cook is far likelier to use the event to showcase new iterations of the iPhone, the Apple TV rumors began running rampant when evidence of multiple shipments labeled “Set Top Boxes” were tracked from one of the company’s Chinese suppliers in August. No one has actually laid eyes on what was inside these shipments, but that’s not going to stop one of the technology world’s favorite guessing games from going into overdrive.

But even if the rumor mill didn’t get fresh grist, it was likely Apple TV was going to resurface atop the most anticipated list of products coming from the company. There’s been too much recent activity both inside and outside Apple around over-the-top TV to keep from wondering whether Cook is finally ready to make good on delivering something that would back up his promise of a “grand vision,” as he put it at a conference appearance in May, in a sector where Apple has yet to make a truly groundbreaking move.

Which isn’t to say Apple TV is a slouch, having shipped 13 million units worldwide since 2010, half of which have come over the past year. While that’s a far cry from the game-changing devices Apple has created like the iPhone and iPad, it’s still a solid entry in the category of standalone set-tops, where Roku has been its only real challenger.

SEE ALSO: Apple Receives 40 Metric Tons of Set-Top Shipments

But that may have changed with Google’s Chromecast, a $35 dongle that began delivering YouTube and Netflix to TV sets last month. Both significantly cheaper and smaller than either Apple TV or Roku, the device may have reset the bar for the category. What’s more, the screen-mirroring functionality known as Airplay that was once Apple TV’s biggest differentiator was also replicated last month by Roku via an iOS app capable of moving content from mobile to TV.

If ever there was a time for Apple to either spawn a fourth-generation Apple TV or create an entirely new device, it’s now. But how?

Content is where the momentum is. After subsisting largely on iTunes and select third-party players for most of its existence, Apple TV is beefing up its roster of programming apps, adding key players like WatchESPN, HBO Go, Disney and Vevo over the summer. There’s plenty more room for growth, but that still won’t do much to keep Apple TV ahead of Roku.

Roku already took a key lead in this space earlier in the year when it signed Time Warner Cable as its first pay-TV partner, a deal Apple is reportedly on the verge of making as well. But mere authentication won’t cut it if Apple really wants to make a quantum leap here, like developing a rumored cloud-based DVR that would strip commercials — for which networks would be compensated. User experience is another area where Apple TV could use a little innovation. Bolstering the device with either the voice control of Siri or the gesture control of Microsoft’s Kinect would be a nice addon, as would layering a second-screen experience a la Microsoft’s Smartglass, which would be somewhat organic given how Airplay makes mobile devices a natural companion to Apple TV.

But if Cook really wants to put jaws on the floor, he would unveil an entirely new product akin to the rumored “iTV” that would be an entirely new television set, delivering both set-top and screen at once. But it’s hard to believe something that transformative would stay a secret until Sept. 10.

There’s just too much pent-up anticipation to keep whatever Apple has in development on the backburner for much longer.

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