Please open up the Apple TV: An Open Letter to Steve Jobs

by editor @ on August 11, 2007

Apple TV and Steve Jobs

Dear Mr. Jobs,

Thank you for releasing the long-waited Apple TV back in March of this year. We think it’s a wonderful device and a great addition to the home theater setup.

With the Apple TV’s easy-to-use interface and simplified remote, we can now watch our favorite movies and TV shows we’ve downloaded from the iTunes Store on our 52″ plasma screen. We can listen to our music collection via our souped-up home theater instead of having it come out from our PC speakers. We can share our vacation photos with our friends in the living room instead of having them crammed in front of the computer. And lastly, we can also enjoy those funny YouTube videos from our couch without going back to the computer.

As wonderful as it is, Apple TV is a closed system. Without hacking it, there is no way to add new features to this one-of-a-kind device. Just a simple feature like supporting new file format requires a hack that probably makes casual users cringe at the thought of trying it out.

Yes, there is a large community of “hackers” that helps with adding features to your closed-up Apple TV. It is not that we are hackers by the classic definition. We don’t try to get into people’s bank accounts, hack into the DOD computer systems, nor do we like to be known as “hackers”. We do it because we see the vast potential of this device. With no support from Apple, we do not have other ways; we are forced to be known as “hackers.”

Your current favorite iProduct, the iPhone, has a development kit and the number of applications for it is growing daily. Though limited, the development kit for the iPhone allows for applications to use its native services making easy to expand on the phone’s functionality.

There also exists a Widget development kit, which allows Dashboard Widgets to be created with ease. That kit alone enables the widget application base to grow to 3100+ widgets strong.

The developers who develop on these kits are still known as “developers.” We, on the other hand, are known as “hackers.” All this just because of our love for the Apple TV.

As for the Apple TV community, we get NOTHING. No development kit to add new functionality like the iPhone. No accessories like the ever-popular iPod, unless you call those Apple TV “skins” accessories.

Frankly, we are frustrated.

Here is our plea to you, Mr. Jobs. Please open up the Apple TV.

Just imagine what it can do. By having a development kit, we can easily add new features to the Apple TV without risking to void the warranty. Want to support a new file format? Boom, a plugin for that. A new arcade game? Boom, a game plugin for that. Want to surf the web? Boom, a Safari-like plugin for that too. Oh how wonderful it is to be surfing the web on a 52″ plasma TV.

And if there is hardware development kit, think of the hundreds of manufacturers who would be eager to develop new accessories for it. A DVD drive? Boom. An AV box? Boom. A hard drive for extra storage? Boom. You already have a “made for iPod” certification program. Why not have one for the Apple TV too?

Yes, there will be a lot of “BOOMS” in the Apple TV Land only if there is a development kit for it.

You mentioned that Apple TV is a “hobby” to you. So why not let it be our hobby to legitimately develop for it too.

Eagerly waiting for your reply.


The team

  • Richard Fish

    I’m not sure if it is a good idea to mock his Steveness with all thoose “booms” if it is actually you (and us) who want something from him.

    Just my 2 c.

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  • John Harkins

    As a long time Apple customer and AppleTV owner, I applaud the developer community that has embraced the AppleTV and hope that Apple does release an SDK to support this enthusiastic group. Although I haven’t used any of the hacks developed for the device yet, I know this would be different if there were an Apple approved/supported path to adding features. I do feel that there is a lot more potential to the AppleTV and hope to see that potential developed. I know that an Apple SDk will open the door to lots of nice goodies and add to the fun we can have with the AppleTV.

  • Pval

    You are hackers by the classic definition, you attempt to add functionality to a device.
    A cracker hacks for personal gain.
    Sadly the media never understood this and therefor the mainstream thinks hackers are evil…

  • Pval is correct on the classic definition of a Hacker…. Criminalizing the term is the currently popular misconception of the original meaning… Glad he pointed it out so I didn’t have to.

    Anyways, this letter, and other requests like it will unfortunately not end up doing much, for one simple reason… Opening up the Apple TV would allow for the addition of more file formats. Of course that is one of the big things all of the hackers and end users want. It is also the absolute LAST thing Apple wants. They won’t mind a few people here and there, but there is no way they want to see it become easy enough the average user can do it. Why not? In one word, iTunes.

    iTunes sells video content in a single format. iPod Videos, iPhones, and Apple TVs are all limited to playing the same format that iTunes sells. Which ends up meaning that the majority of the content for any of those devices is going to come from, or at least through Apple…

    Forget the debate about how much Apple may or may not make per sale on any of the hardware, or even on the content. The real point is that there is a limit to the number of pieces of hardware Apple can sell to any one individual. How many Apple TVs will one person realisticly own? But then how many Videos, Movies, TV Shows, etc… can one person own? Apple wants to be in the middle of every one of those sales, and keeping the hardware limited to the format that they sell is the smart way of doing that.

  • luck

    Pval and Kronos, you are probably correct on the classic definition of the term “hacker”. I’ve developed software for all sorts of industries over my 15-year career and I had never been associated with the term “hacker”. It was only after I started fiddling around with the Apple TV (software and hardware) that people started labeling me with this term. I guess I’m just not used to this term yet.

    Regarding the development kit though, I just don’t see Apple TV’s sole purpose as being only an extension to computers running iTunes. Its potential is so much more than that. Running a custom version of OS X, it is only limited by the software. Even if Apple only opens up a small portion of the OS to the developers, it would still mean a flood new applications (games, productivity apps, etc.) for the Apple TV. Take the iPhone development kit, for example, it is very limited in terms of allowing access to the actual hardware and other important services. However, it still enables countless applications to be developed for the platform.

    Hardware-wise, Apple TV has a potential of being the heart of a home theater setup. As I mentioned in the letter, it can have the same kind of accessories market as the iPod.

    Steve Jobs mentioned at the iMac unveiling that he has some new announcements regarding the Apple TV. I am really looking forward to see what they are. I’m just hoping it is not about a new version of Apple TV. That will be a big let down. Apple TV in its current hardware form still has a lot to offer.

    Lastly, even if the letter does nothing to change the situation, I would still be at peace with myself knowing that I finally wrote the letter that I had always wanted to write since a few months back.

  • Venom

    “Your current favorite iProduct, the iPhone, has a development kit and the number of applications for it is growing daily. Though limited, the development kit for the iPhone allows for applications to use its native services making easy to expand on the phone’s functionality.”

    This is plain wrong. There is no sdk for the iPhone.
    All “real” third party apps are only served webpages.

  • luck

    Venom, I do understand that “applications” on the iPhone are all web apps utilizing javascript to access the limited functionality on the iPhone. And, of course, Widgets are also nothing more than web pages with CSS and javascript. But that is still more than what we have for the Apple TV.

  • kenny

    I’m one of those who think that tha Atv would sell more if it was a little more open. However, the “hacker” community probably “sells” a lot of units because of the work that is put into getting it to do things it wasn’t supposed to do at first. (I would bet MS have sold a lot of xboxes just because what people were able to do with a little hacking).

    Still, I think the problem (if that is what it should be called) lies not only in the ATV itself, but also in iTunes. The main thing that really got me to buy an ATV is the fact that you can manage all your media in iTunes. So, even if I was to hack my ATV to have it play several formats/codecs, I would loose the ability to manage my “weird formats” from iTunes as it does not accept the files.

    So, now I find myself converting stuff all the time just because iTunes doesn’t accept more formats. The community puts in a lot of job, and just the fact that it now is possible to have the ATV play more formats is just great. But as long as iTunes doesn’t accept the files, it is still too limited.

    I don’t know much about application coding, but I don’t see why apple won’t let people add move file formats to iTunes. There are free plugins, so they don’t even have to care about the codec aspect of it (take perian and quicktime as an example). So i’m guessing it is more a question of which container formats iTunes accept. I’m guessing that since QT can play xvid in avi containers with perian, theoretically iTunes can as well.

    To me, the whole point of the appletv is to avoid sitting and transfer files manually to it…

  • Robb

    I don’t own an AppleTV for 3 reasons, 1. Cost 2. No HD TV yet (I know you don’t need one, but why get this until I get one) 3. No network (wired or wireless) connectivity

    When I eventually do get an AppleTV, I sure hope they allow widgets like Dashboard. This would be HUGE, I mean, you can check local news, weather, sports, all within the AppleTV domain and wouldn’t have to go to your computer or switch to normal TV. So I agree, Steve, open up the AppleTV to developers, it might make it bigger then you thought.

  • Here’s the reason Apple WON’T open the ATV or iTunes to the community of developers: DRM. The content these devices serve up is copyrighted and Apple makes them available, via iTunes, under licenses from the content owners. The entertainment industry is so paranoid about people trying to steal their “art” that I’m certain they have Apple by the short hairs when it comes to how “open” their devices can be.

    If the ATV were ever opened for user-based development, it could compromise the effectiveness of DRM. This would put Apple in a VERY bad place in the eyes of the content copyright holders. They won’t risk losing their licenses. They won’t open up the Apple TV until DRM is a concept of the past.

    We know Steve is trying. He got iTunes Plus for us and hopefully other content owners will fall in line and offer DRM-free material. Hopefully the industry will realize we’re not all wanton thieves, and most of us are perfectly happy to pay for the movies we want to watch, or the music we want to listen to, so long as we’re given the freedom to view or hear that content with some degree of flexibility and ease.

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  • antst

    There is no sense and no pointS to ask Apple to make official support for more formats. Apple isn’t a company which just want to make everybody happy. Apple is a business, and busines is about of making money and making profit. And part which makes profit in ATV is iTunes. So, it is absolutely right for Apple to keep ATV “iTunes only”. But…
    There is nothing wrong and bad for Apple to officialy allow to develop other kind of plugins and extensions. Ability to read /. news on a big screen with morning cap of coffe or get current weather conditions before leaving house will not affect Apple’s incoms. It will probably increase it. Ability to use “officially” external NAS as a primary storage will make it even nicer. I would prefer to have ATV as a main storage of my media library and keep it power-on, than use for this mac, or even macbook. This would be great. It would be great to have option to easily extend functionality of ATV in a way that doesn’t affect Apples’s business. For example, my current HTPC is made of custom linux setup. And for now I don’t see a way thet ATV can replace it. And reason for that is trivial. I easily can extend my MythTV based box with custom and, probably, exotic functionality I need. For example, I could write simple plugin which will allow me to watch TV from Internet broadcaster (payd TV) which Apple, probably, anyway will never broadcast and it took for me less that 1 hour to write this plugin.
    This kind of functionality would never affect Apple’s business. But if one day Apple will step on this market, I would really prefer and happy to pay Apple instead and use their integrated solution. But untill they don’t provide this service, give us chance to use alternative solutions 🙂
    Apple anyway won’t be able to write and provide all kind of possible plugins. It is like dashboard, give us chance to officialy write at least some kind of plugins and give us chance to offcialy extend hardware, at least with external DVD drives and NAS (by this we can collect more iTunes media on this box 🙂 )

  • manpan

    Please open Apple TV with an SDK and hardware support enabling other companies to make third party hardware add-ons or devices to work with Apple TV — just like the Make for iPod program you could offer a made for Apple TV program.

  • McDave

    Dear Mr Jobs

    For the love of God do not open up AppleTV. Please do not allow the heckling of the vocal, technophile minority to break the conceptual design mould of a potentially excellent successor to conventional TV. There are plenty of other systems out there for these guys to hack into functionally obese, consumer-irrelevant nonsense only to move onto the next product once that one’s been broken. The IT industry is already awash with technological pointlessness where the wrong type of developers have been allowed run amok where well-considered high-level design & common sense should have held firm please don’t let AppleTV fall.

    We know that the opening of playback formats is coming from the pirate sector (unless someone can tell me of a legit download store which sells MPEG4-ASP based mainstream content) though I’m sure someone will post a ‘my converted DVD selection’ justification even though it too is illegal in most countries at the moment. Don’t let these guys set you up for future lawsuits by indirectly supporting piracy.

    On the subject of good concepts – where’s our HiDef rent/rent-to-buy/buy iTS (don’t assume the rest of the world has broadband as dire as the US) this is starting to get hard to defend.


  • I love my AppleTV, but if it could play back DivX/Xvid so that I don’t have to transcode everything I download that would be excellent a huge bonus. Even if they just shipped it with the perian codec for quicktime I guess we’d be in business!

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  • chase

    all kind of games please open

  • Peter

    Hi team
    Did you ever get any response from Steve Jobs / Apple on your open letter?

    There are MANY users, developers and company’s behind your ATV-request! I do hope Steve Jobs / Apple understand this and does something about it soon.

    Keep up the good work 🙂
    / Peter

    P.s. Why not set up a public pole about this on your website and let people vote about your open letter – to do or not to do?

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  • Really nice post! Thanks for sharing

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