Firecore, a small company in Colorado, recently released v1.0 of the much awaited AppleTV solution, called atv Flash (black). This "hack" allows the black AppleTV (2nd generation) device to gain several important pieces of functionality. To start and give you an idea of what is now possible with the very affordable AppleTV check out this video from firecore.
Now that you've checked it out, here are some thoughts on strategy and where Apple ought to be going. At this rate, the hacking community will turn the AppleTV into the most amazing little piece of technology to hit the TV since the remote control. You can be sure of that.
Firecore has created something that is very unusual. By providing a "jailbreak" of the AppleTV they have enabled added functionality to be added to the AppleTV WITHOUT removing the existing functionality previously available. So by installing atv Flash (black) you get to keep the out of the box experience Apple provides AS WELL AS have additional functionality.
At every firmware OS release Apple provides (currently at 4.4.3) Firecore essentially enables you to upgrade to this OS and then keep the added functionality running along side new Apple featuers. This is unprecedented. It's as if Apple has gained a kick butt developer of functionality of new AppleTV features, all for less than $30 per year of support.
The features you get are not trivial -- along side simple added features like interactive weather and RSS feed reader you get a full featured Media Player that can play videos, music and pictures off ANY shared Windows or Apple hard drive or NAS. You get a fully HTML5 compliant web browser called Couch Surfer Pro, which of course does NOT run Flash or Silverlight. But it does support HTML5 embedded video and audio. There is zero chrome on this browser -- your TV bezel is the chrome on Couch Surfer Pro.
And you get a terrific implementation of Last.fm radio. The last.fm implementation looks like it was done by Apple -- it's that good. Apple-like touches live inside of the last.fm application in atv Flash (black). When a song is playing AppleTV goes into screen saver mode and shows beautiful pictures of the artist. Last.fm may make you dump your MP3 collection for good -- it's available for use in several countries but not the whole world.
atv Flash (black) is not for the technically challenged. It does require you to "jailbreak" your AppleTV which means support from Apple is effectively gone. You will also need to apply updates should you want to update your firmware, because automatic software updates from Apple are effectively turned off. Firmware updates will have to be done using the "jailbreak" software each and every time.
Lastly if you use 4.4.x of the AppleTV OS (iOS5) you will find that rebooting (menu+down until fast blinking LED) or power cycling the AppleTV requires a "tethered" reboot. This means you have to connect your AppleTV via USB cable to a PC or Mac and "help" it reboot properly. It won't reboot on its own, as it will show an iTunes + USB cable icon. Previous 4.3.x AppleTV OSs allowed "untethered" reboots, and Firecore will most likely support this once the community has figured out how to the reboot the AppleTV without help from a PC. Sleeping (holding down play/pause until sleep) and returning from sleep mode on the AppleTV does NOT require tethering, to be sure. This is definitely the biggest draw back, as I've had to reboot several times due to unresponsiveness in the browser so far.
The final analysis is this: Apple better get cracking on an AppleTV that provides a lot more functionality than the current AppleTV. atv Flash (black) is the best $30 you will spend in 2011, that is for sure, especially if you love your AppleTV. And Firecore is just getting started. This is v1.0 of the next generation of television.
ps. Reading the forums leads you to believe that AppleTV can now run Boxee, XBMC and various other plugins. Have fun and stay safe! Remember you can always restore back to the original AppleTV OS by restoring in iTunes after you connect the AppleTV to your iTunes-enabeld PC/Mac via your microUSB cable.