From hobby to hero: The history of Apple TV

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Apple TV
Apple TV was a hobby for years. Until it wasn't.
Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

Apple just keeps trying to crack the lucrative nut known as your living room. From a gimmicky Macintosh TV in the 1990s to a “hobby” Apple TV in the mid-2000s, Cupertino keeps trying to come up with ultimate digital hub for our homes.

So far, Apple has failed to deliver a magical device that will tame all our televisions. Here’s a brief history of Apple’s TV efforts — a two-decade push aimed at ensconcing an Apple machine at the center of our domestic universe — ahead of next week’s likely Apple TV refresh.

Macintosh TV

Coming during Apple’s 1990s throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks phase, the Macintosh TV was the company’s first attempt at computer-television integration. The weird hybrid machine melded a Performa 520 Mac and a 14-inch Sony Trinitron CRT television.

“The Mac TV can easily be connected to a VCR, camcorder or video game player to create the ultimate entertainment unit,” wrote Black Entertainment magazine. “It comes preloaded with several popular programs, including ClarisWorks, an integrated software package combining word processor, spreadsheet and database, and half a dozen CD titles.”

It flopped, with Apple producing only 10,000 units between October 1993 and February 1994. You can see the doomed device in action below.

First-generation Apple TV

The first generation of the Apple TV proper was shown off as a work-in-progress September 12, 2006. Originally given the name iTV, it was changed to Apple TV after U.K. broadcaster ITV threatened Apple with a lawsuit.

The Apple TV shipped on March 21, 2007, boasting a 40-GB hard disk and 7.7-inch footprint. A 160-GB version followed a couple months later. It ran a modified version of OS X v10.4 Tiger, labeled Apple TV software 1.0. On January 15, 2008, a major software update transformed the device into a standalone gadget that no longer needed a computer running iTunes to stream and sync content to it.

The update also meant that, for the first time, users could rent or buy content directly from iTunes. A later update let customers use their iPhones, iPods and iPads as remote controls for the device.

Reviews for the original Apple TV were middling — with most acknowledging its limitations, but saying it was a fine first attempt that was easy to use.

It didn’t take long for people to recast Apple TV as a failure, however. By late 2008, Forbes called it a notable misstep, labeling it “The iFlop.” Within its first six months, only 250,000 Apple TVs had been sold, and even Steve Jobs admitted the product was more “a hobby” than a serious undertaking.

Second-generation Apple TV

Apple TV fans had to wait until September 1, 2010, to got their follow-up to Cupertino’s original streaming television box. The second-gen Apple TV was much smaller, a black device just a quarter the size of the original.

Onstage, Jobs claimed Apple had done its research and made improvements accordingly, although that didn’t stop him from introducing the new Apple TV as “One more thing hobby.”

Since media was now streamed instead of synced, the second Apple TV contained just 8 GB of flash storage for use in the buffering process. It was the first Apple TV to run a version of iOS software instead of OS X, and was powered by the same A4 processor used in the original iPad.

The second-generation model delivered a broader range of content, including movies and TV shows from Netflix. It also played 720p videos with ease, taking it a considerable step beyond the unreliable first-gen Apple TV.

Third-generation Apple TV

The third major iteration of Apple TV was unveiled March 7, 2012. Identical in looks to the second-gen model, it boasted a single-core A5 processor and support for 1080p content. A year later, in January 2013, Apple released a “Rev A” version incorporating a few minor component changes.

By this point, Apple TV had taken on more of an emphasis under Tim Cook. In 2013, Apple TV made a massive $1 billion in sales, prompting Cook to say, “It’s a little more difficult to call it a hobby these days.”

During this time, Apple continued to add new content partners such as Disney and ABC, while Cook hinted at Cupertino’s future plans.

What’s next for Apple TV?

Recent rumors point to the fourth-generation Apple TV boasting significant new powers. Among the probable upgrades for the upcoming device:

The fourth-gen Apple TV is expected to be unveiled during Apple’s big iPhone 6s event next week.