There have been rumors of an actual Apple television ever since Steve Jobs told his biographer that he'd "cracked" the interface problem, but it's never been anywhere close to reality — you can't make a successful TV without actual TV programming, and getting that programming has usually meant you have to plug in a cable or satellite box. It doesn't matter who builds your TV if you're forced to use Comcast's cable box; you'll never see Apple's interface anyway. (Or Google's, or Microsoft's, or whatever — every company that's tried to attack the TV market by replacing or hacking the cable box has quickly failed, often in spectacular fashion.)
What Apple and the others have really needed is deals with all the TV networks to pipe in their channels directly, but it's never been able to get them — many TV networks are owned by cable companies, and no cable company wants to give up control of that primary interface, where it can bombard you with ads and movie rentals and other crap that makes money while chewing at the fabric of your soul.
But that might all change soon. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler just proposed a rule change that would require cable and broadcast networks to sell their programming to any company that wants to be a TV provider, not just cable or satellite companies. That means Apple could set up an internet TV service and get all the channels it needs to actually replace your cable box — not just a handful of streaming deals like it has now, but a full-on TV package. Microsoft could do the same thing and properly integrate live TV into the next version of the Xbox One, instead of the ill-fated IR blaster hack shipping now. And Google could actually deliver on the promise of Google TV, instead of wiping out so hard it almost crushed Logitech into a fine powder.
a wonky legal rule change that could have huge effects
This is a wonky legal tweak — Wheeler just wants to expand the definition of "multichannel video programming distributor" so that it's not specifically tied to cable and satellite companies — but it will have huge effects. Allowing tech companies to properly compete against the entrenched interests of cable companies will rapidly improve the quality of our TV experience: we'll see better integration with our other devices, new interface ideas that actually work, and we'll finally finally be able to ditch our gigantic crappy cable boxes.
The new rule isn't a done deal yet; Wheeler just proposed the change today, and there's a lengthy process to go through. But it's an important change to make; TVs haven't meaningfully evolved since the DVR first came out, and it's time to tear down the barriers that have kept the tech industry at bay for so long.
Also, somewhere Gene Munster is doing a happy dance.