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Apple Gaming Console: Does Tim Cook's Game Controller API Indicate Apple Wants To Make An iBox?

14/06/2013 09:59 BST | Updated 13/08/2013 10:12 BST

In case you haven't noticed, there hasn't exactly been a shortage of video game news this week. Both the PS4 and Xbox One made strong cases at E3 for placing ever-more-powerful boxes under your TV. And the games they've showed so far, for the most part, do at least look stunning.

But the most truly transformative bit of news in gaming this week might not have come from either Sony or Microsoft.

And no, we don't mean Nintendo. (Sorry, Mr Miyamoto. We can't wait for Mario Kart 8, honest.)

We're talking about Apple.

In small announcement made at its busy WWDC 13 conference on Monday, Apple released the first ever instructions for partners to make cohesive, console-style game controllers for both the iPad and iPhone - and, potentially, Apple TV.

So is this the first sign that Apple is making a console? And if not, could it still launch a sneak assault on the next-generation of living room gaming before 2014?

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The document (above) actually outlines two types of controller - one designed to 'wrap around' an iPad or iPhone, and one intended to be used separately like a traditional gamepad.

This note to developers ('Game Controller Framework') allows for a controller as complex as any used by the big three games makers, with dual analog sticks, shoulder buttons and four front buttons.

The release has increased speculation that before long Apple will allow developers to build apps and games not only for its mobile devices and computers, but also the Apple TV box - or a future generation of it.

It's already possible for iPad users to play games on the Apple TV via screen mirroring, of course. And some titles, such as EA's Real Racing 2, allowed gamers to use the iPad as a separate controller with the action streamed to the TV.

But the hope - or for Microsoft and Sony, the fear - is that Apple might have its sights set on bigger, more intense games being played on its TV box, and not on the mega-consoles pitched by the big two. And with its extensive developer community, its 575 million App Store customers and the (current) low cost of its TV box, it might just be able to take some of the big two's market share in living room gaming.

Apple WWDC 2013: In Pictures

If that sounds unlikely given Sony and Microsoft's current dominance, consider the iOS App Store. From a standing start four years ago Apple has now paid developers more than $10 billion in profits from the sale of more than 50 billion apps. In a recent study 24 of the top 25 developers - who shared half the US 2012 app store revenue - made games. And increasingly the iPad is where global gaming hits are being made, from mass appeal games like Angry Birds to critical hits like Ridiculous Fishing. Apple is already a major player in games, just not on the TV.

Of course, we're still a long way from Apple truly entering the console space (which they have before, to hilariously disastrous effect.)

For one, the current Apple TV isn't capable of running very complex or intensive software, so an update would be required - which could possibly boost the price to beyond the box's current 'impulse buy' level of £99.

More importantly, Apple knows that its customers aren't necessarily traditional gamers (whatever that means), or already own a console, and Tim Cook might not want to make too big a bet in that direction.

The iPad and iPhone's top selling games aren't those which mimic console games, but those find new mechanics that work within the touchscreen's limitations - and enhance its unique selling points.

In an illustration of that, Apple's guide for third party controllers stresses that games must still be playable via touch screens. It explicitly does not want to make games only playable with controllers it can't, well, control.

Moreover, if Apple wanted to make a console, they'd make a console. They haven't. They've just opened up a new, sensible avenue for developers to mine new worth from iOS gaming without getting their own hands dirty.

Then there is the fact that third party controllers are actually already available for iOS -- and haven't exactly sold by the ton. Admittedly the lack of a common API means that compatibility and performance issues have hurt those devices, but it's a sign that iPad gamers aren't desperate to pick up gamepads quite yet.

It's also worth noting that while you might be playing your next console with an iPad, that console might still be made by Microsoft. With SmartGlass the Xbox One will let you play games with your existing touchscreen device, and while we're still not sure of how well developers will use this functionality, it's another sign of how these devices are starting to converge.

Despite all of this, however, we know Apple does have designs on your living room.

At last month's D11 conference, CEO Tim Cook indicated that the Apple TV was moving from a mere "hobby" (in Steve Jobs' words) to a genuine business, with total sales around 13 million units. Rumours - mostly unsubstantiated - of a true Apple TV set also persist, but Cook does say he has a "grand vision" in this space. And with many consumers already ready to drop £349 (or more) on a new console this Christmas, it's clearly a good time for Apple to get an alternative, cheaper option on store shelves - complete with a TV-focused app store.

To do that successfully, Apple will need developers' help. That means releasing an SDK for building apps for Apple TV - and we haven't seen that yet. It will also need a better product than the current Apple TV, which is a useful little box for iOS users but is hampered by a terrible interface, no live TV integration and buggy software.

All that said, the controller API is significant. It's a sign that while Apple won't make a mainstream console, but it might just build something new for the living room which - like iOS before it - could crack the whole system open, make a lot of money and give us some fun new games to play.

Game on.