It looks like Apple just got serious about Internet video. The company has given Apple TV, its streaming-media gadget, some prime digital real estate, clearing out a dedicated section of its online store to highlight the set-top box.

The site groups the $99 box with links to related accessories and support pages. This retail positioning is significant, noted 9to5Mac, since it's the first time the set-top box has gotten the royal treatment alongside Apple's bigger product lines: the iPhone, iPod, iPad and Mac. Previously, Apple TV was hidden in the iPod section. 

Apple TV's Time is Ripe

Apple TV had always been considered a niche product within a niche industry, even by Apple itself. When the device debuted in 2006—before the arrival of the iPhone—it was at most an adjunct to the iTunes Store’s video offerings.

Not that the device isn't popular. As of this writing, it's the fourth best-selling electronics item on Amazon. That success came because Apple broadened the device beyond the iTunes ecosystem and allowed Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu on the device. More recently, it's added TV brands like HBO and ESPN.

Yet that selling point only highlights Apple TV’s limitation. Only approved apps appear on the screen. Without the ability to download apps, users are completely reliant on whatever software and features Apple permits. 

If you want to watch Amazon's “Betas,” for example, you have to go through a workaround to stream the show from a Mac, iPhone, or iPad, as Amazon doesn’t have an approved video app for Apple TV yet. 

The popularity of players like Roku, TiVo, Dish with Hopper, Sling and Chromecast prove that people want more flexibility in their TV viewing habits. And if you believe the hype machine at the Consumer Electronics Show, smart TVs are finally going from a long, slow simmer to a hot, roiling boil. 

The next evolution of TV hardware is about to capture hearts and eyeballs. Chances are that's not lost on Apple executives in Cupertino.

Get Those Living Rooms Ready

There's no doubt that, after the Apple earnings call took some of the shine off the iPhone brand this week, the company needs a new hit this year. And there has never been a better time to focus on a TV streaming device than now.

But Apple has never been known to care about trends and hype. Or market analysis. What it might care about, however, is consumer sentiment. The company prides itself on building products people absolutely love. The “unapologetically plastic" iPhone 5C wasn't it. A perception that Apple isn't an endless source of must-have devices has to hurt.

So what heart-grabbing move could Apple make with the newly prominent Apple TV? Rumors abound, like the persistent notion that Apple will stuff that smart-TV technology into its own flat-screen device. But the one that makes the most sense—that feels the most true to Apple’s heritage—is for it to finally launch an app store for Apple TV.

As much as Apple cares about consumers' opinions of its products, it aims to court app creators, too. Truly opening up Apple TV, making it a distribution outlet for developers, could be the move that makes Apple the master of the living room. 

Developers have longed to code for Apple TV. Some have even hacked the box to run iOS apps. The interest is clearly there.

As are the dollars. The App Store did $10 billion in business last year. Imagine the creativity that could come if Apple let consumers spend even some of that on the big screen in their living room. 

Feature image courtesy of Flickr user Julien GONG Min