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Apple Hopes to (Finally) Kill Off the Cable Box

Nearly 12 years after unveiling the Apple TV media player, Apple is finally taking steps to kill off stodgy old cable boxes that are a ubiquitous presence in households that subscribe to cable services like Comcast and Cox Communications.

At its WWDC18 conference in San Jose, Calif. on Monday, Apple said it’s partnering with Charter Communications’ Spectrum cable service to give Spectrum subscribers access to live channels and on-demand programming through Apple TV. Charter, the third-largest pay-TV provider in the U.S., with access to 50 million homes and businesses, will be the first U.S. cable company to incorporate its service into Apple TV.

The move marks a significant step forward for Apple TV’s long-term promise as a simple, intuitive hub for digital television. Apple TV, announced (as iTV) in 2006, began shipping the following year. Since then, improvements have been slow and incremental, and the product has lagged in adoption compared to competing products from Roku, Amazon, and Google. An Apple TV with 32 gigabits of storage sells for $149, while an Apple TV 4K with the same amount of storage is $179.

If other cable companies follow Charter, Apple TV could finally come close to delivering on its promise. In March, France’s Canal+ and Switzerland’s Salt began offering their cable services through Apple TV. Many cable companies rely on aging set-top boxes and a user interface that felt primitive even five years ago. Apple’s aim has been to replace the clunky cable interface with its design sensibilities.

“As more and more cable companies fundamentally shift how content gets to your TV, the typical cable box is becoming a thing of the past,” Jennifer Folse, lead designer of Apple TV, said at WWDC, with the image of an aging cable box looming behind her. “As these companies embrace Internet-based delivery, many of them share our vision of Apple TV as the one device for live, on-demand, and cloud TV content.”

Charter users will have access to an upgrade to Apple TV’s single sign-on introduced last year. In what the company is calling “zero sign-on,” Apple TV will recognize a connection to a cable network and automatically log the user into all apps connected with the account, without the need to enter a password.

Apple also announced support for Dolby Atmos, a high-end audio format that enables multichannel surround sound. The company said that some 4K HDR movies bought through iTunes would be able to use Dolby Atmos for audio.

Update: This article was updated to clarify that Charter Communications is the third-largest pay-TV provider.