New sports channels signal shift in Apple TV

Today's iOS 4.3 update brings MLB.TV and NBA League Pass to Apple TV. It could indicate Apple is taking a more app-like approach to its living room device and does mean it is turning its "hobby" into a more serious undertaking.

Apple is beefing up its Apple TV offering with live streaming sports.
Apple is beefing up its Apple TV offering with live streaming sports. Donald Bell/CNET

It's becoming obvious that Apple TV is not a hobby anymore .

The company had famously referred to its set-top device that way when it premiered four years ago as a way of keeping expectations low. But with today's software update, Apple is being more aggressive about making Apple TV competitive with its set-top rivals.

As part of the iOS 4.3 update released today , Apple TV owners will now have access to MLB.TV and NBA League Pass. Both are subscription services for streaming live games over the Web, and like Netflix, which is already on Apple TV, customers have to enter their existing account to gain access via Apple TV.

It's the first time Apple has featured live sports on Apple TV, and with the addition of these channels, Apple is also signaling that something else may be in the works: a more app-like approach to the device.

Until now, Apple's set-top basically did three things: allow you to rent or buy iTunes content (that stayed on Apple TV only), stream Netflix (if you're a subscriber), and stream iTunes content from other devices. Those are great, but it still placed Apple TV behind the offerings of set-top devices like Roku, Xbox, and PlayStation 3. Besides Netflix, Roku, PS3, and Xbox have integrated Amazon Video on Demand, Hulu Plus, and scores of other sources of Hollywood content.

Apple wants customers to buy iTunes content, so it's not likely we'll see it add many more ways to watch non-iTunes content beyond big name players like Netflix. But the sports angle is a big deal for cord-cutters--those of us who are trying to consume all of our entertainment content on TV without a cable TV subscription. Up until today Apple TV had no sports offering. In terms of major sports, Roku has long had MLB.TV and NHL GameCenter Live, Xbox 360 has ESPN live streaming and MLB, and the PlayStation 3 has MLB.TV and NHL.

Today's update makes Apple TV a lot more competitive in comparison to what those other set-top devices offer. So while Apple TV might be late getting into the sports streaming game, this is a solid start, and probably (hopefully?) means we'll see more.

App-le TV?
It's something we've wondered about since the new-and-improved $99 device arrived last fall: would Apple TV eventually be able to run iOS apps, thus expanding the platform's reach and giving new opportunities to game developers and app makers? Games on Apple TV would make a lot of sense, as would many other apps.

But when Steve Jobs introduced the reimagined Apple TV last fall--a smaller, sleeker device with a lower price tag and Netflix access--he specifically noted that it was running a version of iOS, but not the full-fledged system that appears on iPhones, iPads, and the iPod Touch.

While Netflix, MLB.TV, and NBA League Pass are being positioned as channels on Apple TV--you can't download them from any sort of app store, they're only available via this software update--they're really not any different in how they work than the Netflix app on the iPhone or iPad, or the MLB Game Day app on the same devices. MLB's Game Day app has always been very popular in the App Store, so if these sports channels do well on Apple TV, it's hard to see why Apple wouldn't someday want to give customers more variety of channels or apps to choose to add to their Apple TV.

 

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