Search for the word ‘‘cracked’’ in Walt Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs (or flip to page 555 if you have the bricks-and-mortar version). The second hit yields the following:
It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.
“It” is the mythical Apple iTV. Even though Walt’s report of the July 2011 conversation didn’t hint at Steve’s solution, the eleventh hour revelation has rekindled old rumors and set the blogosphere on fire. “If Steve said he ‘cracked’ the problem, it must be true!”
At first, I had impure thoughts: I imagined Dear Leader, taking a moment away from redesigning Saint Peter’s abode, had foisted a prank upon us abandoned mortals: “That’ll keep ‘em busy…and will take their attention away from embarrassing topics such as the incompatibility between iOS and Mac file formats.”
A few days later, however, I read two posts that made me rethink my dismissive views.
First, in “Apps Are the New Channels”, John Gruber floats the idea of channels-as-apps (powered by iOS, of course):
Imagine watching a baseball game on a TV where ESPN is a smart app, not a dumb channel. When you’re watching a game, you could tell the TV to show you the career statistics for the current batter. You could ask the HBO app which other movies this actress has been in.
Second, in his good-natured pout post “Fine. I will talk about Apple Television or iTV or whatever it will be or will not be called.”, Brian Hall led me to a Nielsen Wire article that contains this graph:
40% and 42% of smartphone and tablet users, respectively, use their devices while watching TV — on a daily basis. The statistics themselves are hardly surprising, particularly to parents who have watched their multimedia-tasking children grow into young adults. But as I looked at the charts, a retroactively-obvious connection, a compatibility, struck me: Smartphones, tablets, and the iTV all use apps. [I’ve given up using the precautionary “putative” when speaking of iTV, and I use the present tense with license.]
With this in mind, what will the iTV look like?
As discussed in a previous Monday Note, if the iTV is an integrated device, the computer inside will become outdated long before the monitor does. Once you’ve graduated to Full HD (1920 by 1080 pixels) any other “improvements” –“240 Hz” display frequency and the like — are markitecture gimmicks that are invisible to most users. In other words, you won’t want to upgrade your TV after 18 months the way many of us do with laptops, tablets, and smartphones. (One could imagine a replaceable iOS computer module inside the iTV, but it sounds clunky, a source of problems.) Even more important, an integrated iTV would orphan the millions of HDTV sets already in place.
Furthermore, I still don’t see a 50” TV set walking out of an Apple Store. It’s hard enough to carry a 27” iMac out — or back in when trouble strikes. And I don’t see battalions of Apple field service people coming to our homes to fix these things.
If there’s no integrated iTV, let’s consider the iTV as a separate module, the next-generation Apple TV. In order to really work in the marketplace and achieve an iPod-like status, the module would have to “swallow” the set-top box, DVR included. If it didn’t, we’d still have to fight the multiple device/multiple remote battle: The set-top box, the primary source of TV fodder, has to be connected to the Input 1 HDMI connector, relegating iTV to Input 2. Certainly not the elegant solution Steve had in mind.
However, swallowing the set-top box and its DVR would entail making agreements with cable operators, business that are more numerous, less sophisticated, and more afraid of Apple than are the wireless carriers. While the wireless carriers have seen how smartphones can increase their ARPU, cable operators know only too well what would happen to their barely legal and definitely distasteful program bundling schemes once Apple gets in the game. (Try adding a single channel to your existing Comcast bundle: in Palo Alto, with Comcast, you must fill and email a form. It can’t be done on the phone, even if you manage to get to a human after a 20 minute wait.)
Ah, but maybe there is a way: Connect the set-top box to the HDMI input on the iTV, then connect the iTV to your HDTV’s prized Input 1. That gets us partway there, but it still doesn’t solve the multiple remote problem.
That’s where apps come in for the first but not last time: Download Apple’s iRemote application to your iOS, Android, or Windows Phone smartphone or tablet and you’re done.
Smartdevice-as-remote has been attempted before, of course. One example is the Xfinity iPad/iPhone app. You prep each set-top box in your home, download the program guide to your iDevice, and you’re good to go. When you issue a channel-change command from your smartphone, it’s sent through the Net to the Comcast cloud, and is routed back to your set-top box via Comcast’s cable:
Why the detour through Comcast? Because your smartphone/tablet and your set-top box don’t understand each other. The former speaks WiFi and Bluetooth; the latter only understands infrared.
Unfortunately, in my case, it worked once and never worked again.
Judging from the comments in the App Store, I’m not alone.
Furthermore, counting on the cable operator – and there are more than 25 in the US — to let the smartphone/tablet app control a multitude of set-top box models via the circuitous route described above probably isn’t the type of elegant solution Jobs had in mind.
How about translating between the smartphone/tablet and the set-top box by inserting a mediating device, a WiFi or Bluetooth-to-I/R converter? With the iTV connected to the set-top box and TV via HDMI, you still end up with a complicated arrangement: Your home WiFi base station provides a Net connection to your smartphone and iTV, and the WiFi-to-I/R converter listens to your smartphone and speaks I/R to your TV and set-top box:
This looks ugly, and it gets uglier: Since there’s no two-way connection between the TV/set-top box and the “remote,” the remote has no idea whether the TV is on or off, which input it’s using, which channel it’s tuned to. As a result, it’s easy to have a system in an unknown state, frustrating most mortals and forcing ‘‘harmonizing remote” makers such as Logitech to use complicated workarounds.
For most users, chances are slim that the set-up I just described will work and keep working.
Now let’s consider channels as apps. Why should TV on an iTV be like the TV we get through a set-top box? Newspapers and magazines on tablets (and smartphones for some publications such as the NY Times) aren’t mere replicas of the paper-based product. The adaptation to the new medium isn’t always pretty, but there are some great examples: See Bloomberg Businessweek or The New Yorker Magazine on a tablet.
The same will apply to TV. Not all channels will adapt equally well or equally quickly, but as “channel apps” evolve, we’ll see new ways of using the medium. As Mr. Gruber pointed out, imagine a football game as an app on an HDTV screen with the on-demand stats he mentioned plus the Twitter and Facebook streams we’ve grown to expect. (Personally, I’m not crazy about having too much “other” content on the screen as I watch a game, but I might be in a minority.)
Delivering channels as apps liberates our “viewing experience” in two ways: It breaks today’s narrow channel delivery format and it bypasses the set-top box. Today, I can watch the “straight” version of 60 Minutes on my TV (in real time or from my DVR), or I can go to my computer and watch a recent episode plus the additional “60 Overtime” content…or I can buy the $4.99 iPad app and get all of that through a much better UI that includes great navigation to the vast library of past episodes. Port that iPad app to the iTV device and you’re done. With channels as apps, all you need is a net connection (sometimes provided by the cable operator). You can throw the set-top box away.
Will consumers pay for iTV apps/content as I did for 60 Minutes? Probably, and we won’t have to pay for everything, just as with today’s TV with its combination of free and pay-per-view programs.
Of course, there’s the notorious “simple matter of implementation,” here: Someone has to write the apps that encapsulate the channels. But once the movement gains strength and tools become widespread and understood, it will be easier than you might think. 500,000 iOS apps attest to the availability of institutional knowledge.
In the meantime, if you don’t have an iPad, borrow one, spend $4.99 for the 60 Minutes app, and imagine the experience on an HDTV. Is this the TV future Jobs had in mind?
[In a future Monday Note and/or in comments on our site, I’ll cover variants to the approach described above, infrastructure issues, and also potential reactions from carriers/operators and competitors.]