Apple TV iOS Gaming Clues Spell Trouble for Xbox, PlayStation

Oh the secrets a few lines of code can tell, say of an iOS-rigged iteration of Apple TV that plays games, or maybe even streams them. Watch out Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, and OnLive. Or should we say watch out Apple?

Were it the usual anonymous hit-bait conjecture, I'd balk, but Engadget's riffing off actual iOS 4.3 beta code. Their tipster noticed text string references in the beta to terms like "ATVGames" and "ATVThunder." And no, the tipster doesn't mean new versions of ATV Offroad Fury.

Gossip vs. ATV Streaming Fury

From there, the story hops (leaps, really) to plans for a game controller, an online storefront possibly tied to Apple's Game Center, leaderboards (online scoreboards), and a game scheduling service (online matchmaking). All part of Apple TV's ongoing ploy to take over the world.

Or maybe just the world of gaming. Two strings in the beta code, "com.apple.appletv.play.live.thunder" and ".play.archive.thunder," deepen the mystery, possibly invoking a streaming game option (think OnLive) and some form of data archiving (on or offline).

Given Apple TV's paltry 8GB local flash storage, streaming makes a lot of sense. The tipster mentions OpenGL and "computing locally" as another possibility, though Engadget seems to conflate that with "streaming low bandwidth data," which has nothing to do with an open graphics library.

OnLive vs. ATV Unleashed

OnLive already has the corner on streaming games, offering acceptable visual fidelity over medium speed, low latency connections. The company recently rolled out a high-definition MicroConsole that extends the service to living room big-screens: For $99 you get a rectangular box that uses just 6 watts of power and plays virtually anything. What's more, last we heard, OnLive's next stop was Netflix-like video streaming.

Apple TV already covers video streaming, allowing you to channel content from its iTunes Store as well as popular services like Netflix and YouTube. Engadget's tipster speculates about a "video merchandising and streaming" feature (whatever that means), which sounds a little superfluous, but then it's still heavy guessing at this point.

Of course just because OnLive's first doesn't mean they'll remain foremost. If any of this ATV tittle-tattle turns out to be true, OnLive's in for a fight, and watching the "cloud-computing" patent brouhaha that would inevitably follow could be fascinating.

XboxPS3Wii vs. ATV Reflex

But what about gaming's current top three? Apple's checkered gaming record makes it hard to predict what happens if Apple TV goes toe-to-toe with services like Microsoft's Xbox Live and Sony's PlayStation Network. It's not hyperbole to say the iPhone (and iOS) revolutionized phone-based gaming. It's also not hyperbole to say the Mac (and OS X) have limped along well behind the curve in gaming terms.

But forget the Mac and all that's underwhelming about gaming on one. When Nintendo' tells Forbes that Apple's a bigger threat than Microsoft, well, you can write it off as a slap at the competition, or take it seriously.

"Do I think that in the near term they can hurt us more than Microsoft?" Fils-Aime told Forbes last October, answering his own question "Absolutely."

With hundreds of millions of iPhones, iPads, and iPods in the wild, who'd argue?

But Fils-Aime's talking handhelds, not set-top boxes. Could an Apple TV that streams games hurt Microsoft or Sony? That's less certain. Apple sold a million of its second generation Apple TV by December 21, 2010. That's good compared to first generation sales (likely well below 10 million units sold in four years), but then we're talking a box that costs half ($100) what the Wii does ($200) and one-third what the mainstream Xbox and PlayStation 3 models run for ($300). And one million's a drop in the bucket. Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo all offer video streaming (including Netflix), can claim around 90 million units in North American console sales, and in combined sales leave Apple TV in the dust on a month-to-month basis.

If, on the other hand, Apple launched a version of Apple TV with serious local horsepower and a stable of top-tier developers, all bets are off. Never mind that some have managed to fiddle iOS devices (like the iPad) to run games (like The Incident) on an HDTV using a Bluetooth-paired iPhone. (Okay, granted it's as likely to happen as Apple suddenly offering developers App Store access carte blanche.)

The World vs. ATV Alive

If there's anything to this rumor, it's that Apple's probably planning some set-top variant of its storied App Store that'll stream the sort of games you can find there today: Trine. BioShock 2. Sid Meier's Civilization: Colonization. Braid. Angry Birds. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Bejeweled 3. While some of those are obviously available elsewhere, Apple's iOS gaming library is massive, the games are cheap, and the exclusives are increasingly unmissable.

What do you think? If Apple released an update that allowed you to stream games, would you buy one?

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