FaceTime could be Apple's iTV killer app

I'm betting a FaceTime-equipped iTV device will create entire new legions of rabid, insane, Apple fans. Oh, joy.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

On Saturday, Digg's Kevin Rose posted that Apple's rumored Apple TV replacement, expected to be called the iTV, will (and I quote) "change everything". His premise is that the iTV will replace cable and satellite services. Honestly, I don't think so, but I wouldn't put it past Apple to try to control what you're allowed to see, read, and watch through yet another medium.

Kevin also suggests how the iTV would work if it were based on the iPad's iOS. I've been a long-time, long-suffering Apple TV user and it's relatively easy to picture some of what Kevin's suggesting. But I also think he's missing a very, very big possibility: FaceTime.

Let's first look at the Apple TV and what it might become.

Today, the Apple TV is, essentially, a half-high Mac Mini running Front Row, Apple's 8-foot interface for media centers.

Front Row is usable -- buggy as heck -- but usable. I use the Apple TV primarily as a podcatcher, watching all my favorite podcasts streamed down from the cloud, while chilling comfortably on my couch.

This implementation is rough. The device regularly loses icons, won't let you unfavorite favorited items, regularly tells you the iTunes store is unavailable when it is, and so on. While the Apple TV has gone through a number of major UI upgrades, it really is something of an orphan -- the Apple TV is not a Mac and is certainly not an iPad or iPhone.

It makes sense for Apple to refresh the Apple TV and transform it into an iOS device. First, the current Apple TV is a complete orphan, with a hacked OS that doesn't really work for anything. Moving it to iOS would improve maintainability, if nothing else. Then, of course, iOS would almost immediately score the device Netflix. That, alone, would be a major upgrade for the Apple TV. But there are many apps that would be nice to use from a couch, including some unexpected ones, like writing tools and ebooks.

I regularly read, write, and browse from the couch. I'm writing this article on my media center PC, keyboard on my lap, mouse on the armrest of the couch.

Of course, iOS devices are gesture-based.

It would be possible to use a regular remote control to move between apps, select, and launch them, and that's probably going to be the default behavior. I strongly doubt we'll see a Wii-like motion control for the iTV.

Undoubtedly, though, we'll see gesture controls for the iTV via the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. After all, Apple already allows you to use your iPhone as a remote control for the Apple TV, and it makes a lot of sense to link these devices to the iTV and bring gesture control to the couch. Since they're on the Wi-Fi network already, it's a pretty straightforward task.

Then, gesture control becomes very interesting. Using an iPad and an iTV, it would be possible to do John King-like magic board manipulations with photos, for example. Gaming might also have some potential with this type of interface, at least for casual gaming.

But here's the killer app: FaceTime.

The Apple TV actually ships with a USB port. Crazy. I know. USB. As if you'd want to connect stuff to an actual Apple product. As if the Apple plug police didn't feel you'd dirty their pristine, virgin box by attaching, you know, something useful.

Snark aside, although Apple is unbearably restrictive in how it allows anything to connect to iOS devices, it makes a metric frak-ton of sense for Apple to ship an iTV device that allows a webcam to be plugged into it.

At that point, you no longer just have little tiny screens talking to little tiny screens, like a modern day, incredibly annoying Dick Tracy. Instead, you can have Mom and Dad on the couch, talking to Muffy in college. Or grandma on the couch, talking to Baby Biff in his crib.

Now, I have to admit that this all seems quite horrid to me. I don't really want to see people when I talk to them. But I'm not a grandparent. I'm anti-social, and all my friends are ugly.

For the rest of the world, I'm betting a FaceTime-equipped iTV device will create entire new legions of rabid, insane, Apple fans. Oh, joy.

It'll also give Microsoft's Kinect (i.e., Natal) a run for its money. Then, of course, there's the potential for porn.

Update: ZDNet guest blogger Alain Grignon wrote a very interesting, related post.

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