Four years ago, I wrote an article that asked the question “If Apple allows iOS apps on Apple TV, will that be the ultimate thin client for only $99?” Today, Apple finally gave us the chance to answer that question once and for all with the announcement of the fourth generation of Apple TV. The new Apple TV is much more powerful than it's predecessor, and though it's a bit more expensive ($149), compared to other thin clients it's a outright bargain.
What it has
First, let’s look at what we know is there out of the box. These are things that Apple allows you to do, not "things you can unlock by jailbreaking." We like to keep things 100% above board here.
The most important component of the new Apple TV is the addition of an App Store for third party developers. We’ve already seen demos of shopping on TV (meh) and playing games, but it’s not hard to picture some tvOS-centric productivity apps or, in our case, remote desktop clients. There isn’t a desktop virtualization product on the planet that doesn’t have an iOS client, so it stands to reason that we’ll see them pop up in the Apple TV App Store quickly.
Bluetooth keyboard support
This isn’t new, but you might not realize that the Apple TV supports Bluetooth keyboards. As useless as that might seem when you’re watching Netflix (unless you really hate searching with the remote), for us, it’s necessary.
We all love the idea of an unmanaged thin client, and it’s entirely possible that this could finally be it. It auto-updates, has a protected app ecosystem, and it’s easy for users to set up. Still, anyone thinking about doing this might want to at least explore the possibilities of managing them.
Historically, the Apple TV has run a flavor of iOS tweaked for a large screen and a remote control, but it retains the base features of iOS including MDM configuration profiles. Assuming tvOS carries this forward, you'll be able to manage the Apple TV as if it were any other mobile device.
What it needs
An App Store, Bluetooth keyboard support, and management capabilities are steps in the right direction, but we need at least one more thing to pull this off–mouse support.
The new remote control certainly seems cool, but only as a device used to drive the Apple TV in the way it’s intended. Since we’re bending the use case a bit, we’re going to need something more than a 2cm square touchpad. So the big question is, “Will the Apple TV support bluetooth mice?” Ordinarily I'd say something like, "Apple doesn't care about the business use cases," but there is already gamepad support in tvOS, as well as documentation for their Bluetooth API. Support for a mouse might already be there, and at the very least it's not too much of a stretch.
Even if it doesn't, Citrix has already demonstrated that it has the ability to impose their will on a device by making the Citrix X1 Mouse work with iPhones and iPads, so you could see them taking a swing at the Apple TV, too. There might be subtle differences between the platforms that don’t allow for it, but I don’t put it past them to get it working.
What it will never have*
Even if we get the mouse and management support, there’s one huge feature that we’ll never see for the Apple TV: connectivity for peripherals. With the only ports being HDMI, power, ethernet, and a USB-C port, there's not a lot of immediately useful options. Obviously, this excludes a number of use cases, but that’s what “traditional” thin clients are for, right? HP, Dell, Igel, and others can breathe easy when it comes to POS, barcode scanners, printers, and so on.
*Never say never. The USB-C port is used to connect the device to a computer for configuration through iTunes, but it could possibly be used with a breakout cable like the new MacBooks. The Apple TV Specs page does not elaborate other than to say it's there for "service and support."
Android has become an option for MDM-managed thin clients in the last few years, though I don’t think I’ve met anyone that uses them at a large scale. I suspect it’s more because of the Android OS than the hardware or management, though. Could Apple TV and tvOS be the right mixture of capability, usability, and security? There are more questions than answers still, but when the new Apple TV is released, we’ll start trying to get answers. In the meantime, we can pore over the tvOS Developer Library and see what other gems we can unearth.