updated 01:30 am EDT, Wed September 4, 2013
Possibility of new Apple TV model coming this fall, following rash of updates
Apple has recently given its "hobby" Apple TV set-top box a rash of updates, adding new channels and planning on adding built-in iTunes direct purchasing to the small unit. Similarly, the box's popularity has risen steadily over the last year, with Apple CEO Tim Cook telling a conference in May that the company had sold 13 million of the devices, "about half in just the last year." Now Apple has taken delivery of 40 metric tons of "set top boxes" from a previously-unknown Chinese supplier that could herald an updated device coming soon.
According to Homeland Security logs, Apple has accepted three shipments of devices described alternately as "set top boxes" and "set top box with communication function" on three dates across August. The devices are made by BYD Precision Manufacture in Shenzhen, a company that has only ever previously shipped a "PC portable" device to the company, on August 18. The most recent record of "set top boxes" prior to this was in December 2012 from Hon Hai (Foxconn), Apple's usual partner for Apple TV manufacture.
The change in supplier could mean nearly nothing: Apple has been trying to diversify its suppliers in various areas since before Tim Cook took over as CEO, and it is entirely possible that the shipments could be the slightly-smaller 1080p-supporting Apple TV units similar to what is available in stores now. That said, the company might be making at least minor changes to the units, for example to incorporate support for the new standard 802.11ac protocol, or to upgrade the video chip to handle 2K or even 4K video.
It's also possible that Apple's long-speculated "new TV" product, previously thought to be a branded HDTV, could be simply a revamped Apple TV. Some pundits have claimed that the next "Apple TV" would also be a set-top box with different abilities, such as the option to subscribe to "cable" channels directly through iTunes rather than dealing with middlemen such as cable companies. Content providers like HBO are said to be in favor of the idea of letting users directly subscribe, similar to how the BBC's Global iPlayer lets users outside of the UK pay a flat yearly fee for its content.
Apple's last significant update of the Apple TV was last March, adding 1080p support to the unit. The company now appears likely to introduce iOS 7 at a special event on September 10 that is thought to be focused on iPhones, but the company could more quietly update existing Apple TV units to use a variant of iOS 7 as it has with previous iOS 6-based updates (the Apple TV numbers its software version differently due to some variations between its software and that on the iPad and iPhone, though it is still iOS-based).
CEO Tim Cook has said on a number of occasions that the company has "a grand vision" for improving television, but has never said exactly how that would work. Co-founder and former CEO Steve Jobs told his biographer shortly before he died that he had "finally cracked" the problem, but gave no details that were revealed in the book.