Since many Apple TV users complain about the product's lack of features and proprietary file formats — even with the recently upgraded version — it's no surprise that some of them will go the extra mile to add desired features. These extra features generally come in the form of plug-ins, or hacks, created by independent developers and offered as free downloads to anyone with a bit of technical knowledge. The latest add-on comes in the form of the just-released Skype plug-in, which adds free calling and chat functionality to Apple TV. This is just the latest in a long line of plug-ins that can be found on sites like AwkwardTV, Gizmodo and Squidoo. AwkwardTV's wiki offers extensive information on installing plug-ins and developing new ones, and Ars Technica provides additional developer information.
Richard Broughton, an analyst at Screen Digest, said that plug-ins such as Skype will only be used by a small number of people, and that software updates could render previous plug-ins useless. "While such plug-ins are undoubtedly useful for consumers looking for that little bit extra from their Apple TV, and while Skype is a well-known brand, the added functionality is still likely to remain a niche offering for the time being," he explained. "Apple likes its own applications to run on its devices, if only for the reason that it can provide support for them, particularly for consumer devices such as Apple TV, which are designed to be plug-and-play, not needing extra, third-party add-ons. It is also debatable whether new patches for Apple TV will overwrite or damage the plug-in," he said. To install most plug-ins, users will need to disable the auto-update feature; instructions can be found at AwkwardTV's wiki. AwkwardTV's wiki also includes information on reverting the new version of Apple TV back to the previous version — again, necessary for most plug-ins.
Broughton also said that a lack of technical knowledge by most users could be an issue. As he explained, "Apple's products are often as much a fashion statement as they are gadgets, and as such, consumers using them may not be quite as tech-conscious as those using less mainstream devices. Consequently, many consumers may not be aware that plug-ins exist, or even if they are, actually use them." Broughton continued, "Unless the plug-in is easy to use, self-installing and self-explanatory, it is unlikely to achieve success. There are hacks in existence which allow owners of Xbox 360s to surf the Web using the console, but they're invariably tricky or potentially dangerous for the console — some sites mention that viruses could affect the Xbox if it's used in this manner. In the same manner, Apple TV plug-ins are likely to have limited appeal."
On the subject of whether there are any legal issues involved, Broughton said that it's more about voiding Apple TV's warranty and support. "While Apple doesn't forbid modifications to Apple TV, any alterations could invalidate the AppleCare plan, preventing replacement or repair in the event that the product is damaged. As Apple hasn't set up a certified system to allow third-party plug-ins, it certainly isn't overtly encouraging them," he said. Broughton went on, "While people have hacked the iPhone, with its infinitely more stringent terms and conditions, the potential benefits were greater: avoiding the expensive contracts. Plug-ins for Apple TV are thus far limited to applications you could use on your PC or Mac, and therefore, whether people will risk their warranty on something they could just use on their computer is a moot point."
While it might stand to reason that Apple could offer plug-ins directly, Broughton noted that this isn't likely to happen soon. "There are all sorts of plug-ins out there — RSS-feed plug-ins, media-controller plug-ins, even a GPS plug-in — so there's no real limit to what could be brought out. What has to be considered is what Apple would have to gain from producing the plug-ins, though. Going from past experience, any additions brought out are likely to involve compatibility with other Apple devices — between Macs, iPhones or iPods. However, Apple tends to make major alterations like this nonoptional — they want everyone to be enabled, not just those who were tech-savvy enough to find the plug-in," he said.
Nevertheless, creating and installing plug-ins can be a fun way to add interesting capabilities to devices like Apple TV, and even to services like Joost. The Skype plug-in goes to show that the number of plug-ins will only grow in the future.
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