If you recall, last year I mentioned an ad that Apple posted looking for an HDTV engineer, well, last week an interesting quote from the Steve Jobs bio will likely fuel the rumour mill for the next few months until we hear something, or don’t. Here it is in context:
‘I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use,’ [Jobs told Isaacson]. ‘It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud.’ No longer would users have to fiddle with complex remotes for DVD players and cable channels. ‘It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.’
That seems to be a lot more certain than Jobs was last year at the D8 conference when he answered a question from an audience member. He laid out some very important things regarding the TV market that no one is really talking about.
A fascinating clip that addresses a whole discussion on why Apple only considers the TV market a hobby. In it, Jobs talks about how to put a layer on top of everything else with a consistent UI. He gets to specific details at 1:30-3:00
Add a box on to the TV system. You can say well gosh I notice my HDTV has a bunch of HDMI ports on it one of them is coming from the set-top box I’ll just add another little box with another one. Well, you just end up with a table full of remotes, clutter of boxes, bunch of different UIs, and that’s the situation we have today. The only way that’s ever going to change is if you go back to step one and tear up the set top box and restart from scratch with a redesigned UI and present it to the consumer in a way they’re willing to pay for it. And right now there’s no way to do that. So that’s the problem with the TV market. We decided what product do we want the most, a better TV or a better phone? Well the phone won because there was no chance to do the TV because there’s no way to get it to market. What do we want a better TV or better tablet. Well a better tablet because there’s no way to get the TV to market. The TV is going to lose until there is a better go to market, or there’ll just be a bunch of TIVOs. That’s the fundamental problem. It’s not a problem of technology, it’s a go to market technology.
Can Apple “tear up the set top box” and start over?
Most content on cable channels has gone online, but some content, including breaking news, live events and sports, is still only available via traditional cable. That being said, these are the two ways Apple could go on building its TV.
1. Apple could make deals with as many cable content providers as possible and deliver as much content as possible over IP through a iTunes/AppleTV/iCloud interface. There was a rumored deal two years ago that Apple was going to sell IP cable TV for $30/month – Eddy Cue was in charge (he’s now head of iCloud incidentally). It never happened and it likely won’t because the cable companies won’t allow it.
Would an IP-only Apple HDTV just lack whole swaths of the TV content spectrum? Would people buy a TV that may not show their college football games or local news channels (and have no way to pipe that in?
Another problem here is that cable companies, especially when faced with an IP-only competitor going over their lines, could throttle data or impose harsher bandwidth caps that make watching the horrifically typical household average of 5 hours of TV prohibitive.
In the end, IP-only TV doesn’t sound like a realistic option.
2. So, and this might be what Jobs meant when he said “cracked”, Apple could build a layer that sits on top of Cable Boxes, iCloud, and anyone else who wants to get on your TV including gaming machines. It would have one consistent simple Apple UI for all of your TV needs (like Jobs stated above) – Think Siri and even go as far as Kinect (from Xbox).
More importantly, it would control the CableTV input, supplanting the set top box. Instead of grabbing the TVGuide from the cable companies, Apple could pull the TV schedules from Titan, Gist or other service and put a clean, simple, consistent UI over top of it. As an example, think of the way a Slingbox or eyeTV software sets itself up on your cable system. Those systems know what network you are on and your physical location so it knows what channels you will have. Apple’s could easily do the same thing.
Then there is part 2 of Jobs’ view:
Then you get into another problem. Which is there isn’t a cable operator that is national. There is a bunch of cable providers. There isn’t like a GSM standard like with phones. Every country has different standards, different government approvals. It’s very balkanized. I’m sure smarter people than us will figure this out. That’s why when we say Apple TV as a hobby we use this phrase.
If smaller companies like Sling and eyeTV have figured out how to deal with cable companies globally, then it wouldn’t be a stretch to think that Apple could do the same, all with a consistent UI globally.
Perhaps it is just an app. Possibly called “Cable.app”. Just like Apple made the “Phone.app” on the iPhone.
But how does Apple leverage this?
If you are a cable company you don’t want to just sit on a low level channel in Apple’s “Cable.app”. You want to be front and centre like apps are on an iPad. By becoming the gatekeeper, Apple can make it advantageous for content producers to come out of the cable channel and into the IP delivered App world just like they do on other iOS devices (and you can bet that Apple’s TV will be an iOS device).
Apple is currently doing the same with its new Newsstand Folder/App which is giving some publications 14x growth by putting content in users’ eyes. Conde Nast is showing huge gains as well since it went on Newsstand. Location Location Location.
The same thing happens when music is put on the front of the iTunes Store. This is prime real estate because Apple is the gatekeeper.
Every big cable company already has an app that lets you stream content to an iPad. Most major networks have iPad apps that let you watch some shows. This is clearly a superior experience to channel surfing for live content.
By creating a full ecosystem and becoming the gatekeeper, Apple can motivate more companies to deliver content over IP via apps. Viola!
What about the User Interface?
Apple has recently patented Microsoft Kinect-like 3D gestures that could augment the control from iOS devices. As for Siri controlling the user interface of such a TV system, there are a lot of problems with that – mostly ambient sound.
Apple does have some noise cancellation technologies available that will make voice navigation more of an option. The truth is that Apple’s TV UI will probably be a combination of existing technology and some that it is developing.
How soon can this be available?
As for when it will be delivered, I think we’re looking at something pretty far out. We’ve heard nothing reliable about Apple testing a product so a release early next year seems far fetched. I’m going to go out on a limb and speculate that the earliest we might hear about something like this would be summer 2012.
What the keynote address might sound like:
“Apple finally tackles the TV. Remember music before the iPod? Remember phones before the iPhone? Remember tablets before the iPad? iTV offers the world’s largest supply of HD Video content, all easier to manage. iTV gets out of the way and lets you find what you want faster than ever. Spend less time searching and more time enjoying.”
Sound off in the comments.
*The Apple iTV Picture is courtesy of Pocket-lint.com