If you happen to be at the San Francisco Airport and have some time on your hands, stroll over to the United Airlines domestic gates and check out the history of television display.
Set up like a museum arcade, the exhibit has everything from early black and white TVs in huge cabinets to mini-TVs that fit in the palm of your hand. There’s even one that looks like a space capsule from the ’60s. And sprinkled in between the various TVs are all types of TV-related memorabilia such as TV guides from the 1950s and 1960s, posters from shows like I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show, to lunch boxes with characters from The Mickey Mouse Club and, my favorite, an actual Howdy Doody puppet with its strings still attached.
The last time I took this walk down memory lane, I grew rather nostalgic for the simple times of early television where we only had to deal with three channels and every show was appointment TV. In my childhood, 6:00pm was time for Uncle Walter (CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite). And every Saturday night, I had to endure my aunt’s demand to watch The Lawrence Welk Show.
Now we have hundreds of channels to choose from, DVR technology to make sure we don’t miss any show we really want to see and, more recently, a plethora of OTA (over the air) TV shows and video podcasts popping up on the Internet – all streamed to my TV via something like Google TV if I can find them.
And while we’ve had major advances in TV technology that includes color TV, cable and satellite programing and apps related to TV at our disposal, the actual means for finding the shows we want to watch is about the same. In my youth, it was the TV guide that helped me find what was on TV, while today it’s the interactive programming guide.
While the interactive programming guide is much better then the analog TV Guides of the past for finding what’s on television, its user interface is mediocre at best. And the way you have to enter text to search for a program is primitive and often maddening. And that same type of user interface is also found on things like Netflix, Hulu+ and others. You use a remote to peck out one letter at a time in a crossword-like manner until you get the name of the show.
In his biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson quotes Jobs on this very subject: “I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use,” he told Isaacson. “It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud. It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.” Isaacson elaborates, “No longer would users have to fiddle with complex remotes for DVD players and cable channels.”
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Since that quote has come out, many have speculated about what a Jobsian like TV would be like. While he hints that it would be an integrated TV that is easy to use and seamlessly synched with iCloud, he does not give many more details about his vision for reinventing TV.
But as someone who has followed Apple for 30 years, tracking Steve Jobs and watching the way he thought close up, my experience from years of scrutinizing Apple and Jobs makes me think that there are probably three key goals behind his strategy to reinvent TV.
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The first clue comes from Jobs’ statement that it has to be “completely easy to use.” As one who had to deal with all types of digital content and many licensing deals, Jobs clearly realized that gaining access to quality content will be key to any future Apple TV strategy. But he also knew that he would have to deal with user-generated content, video podcasts and new types of Internet TV shows as well. So I believe that his team is creating a very large database of content that includes commercial programs and all of these other Internet-accessible TV programs, and building an architecture around this content to make it elegantly organized and tied to artificial intelligence technology that makes it easy to find.
The second clue comes from Jobs saying that people would no longer have to fiddle with remotes. This is most likely where Siri comes in. In a recent column where I wrote about why Microsoft and Google fear Siri, I point out that while Siri’s speech recognition and speech comprehension is impressive, without its link to powerful databases it would not be very useful. I also point out that Siri, tied to rich databases, is a real threat to anyone with a search engine since Siri’s connection to these databases would compete with them. While Siri’s speech and artificial intelligence technology is focused on mobile today and tied to related databases such as Yelp, mapping services and more, in an Apple TV world, Siri would instead be tied to a database focused just on finding and accessing TV programs and online video content.
Today, if I want to find the current information for Glee on my cable TV’s programming guide, I have to hunt and peck out “Glee” and once I find It, I only get the next time it will be on Fox. But Glee is also available on Netflix, Fox, and other video services as well. In a reinvented Apple TV model, all I would need to do is ask Siri to find me all the shows about Glee and Siri would search all of the available locations Glee can be found and then present them in chronological order and make them accessible on demand.
Or say that you want to know how to make tamales. You’d ask Siri to find all the video programs that show how to make tamales, and it would go out and search its database of programs from the Food Network, the Cooking Channel, PBS, video podcasts and YouTube, and would display on your TV screen every show on the subject within seconds. And if it’s smart enough, and the answer is in its database, it might even be able to tell you which store closest to you has all the ingredients you need to make this dish.
I believe the underlying secret to Apple reinventing the TV will be how they develop the various content licenses, apply and organize them in a rich database and then use Siri to make these programs that could be on cable, satellite, the Internet and any other distribution medium easy to find and play back on demand.
The third clue comes from Jobs saying, “It would be seamlessly synched with all of your devices and with iCloud.” While this is somewhat obvious given that this is a key function of iCloud today, what’s not obvious is that I believe he literally meant all of your devices that are tied into the Apple ecosystem. Since iCloud does this on iOS and Mac OS X devices, then (at least in theory) any device Apple makes would be an Apple TV, or at the very least, have access to the same Apple TV user interface and content database.
In practical terms, it would mean that in an Apple TV environment, if you wanted to see a program you would just ask for it. For example, if you knew the channel where your TV program resides, you would just tell Siri to change the channel to the one you want. And if you don’t know the channel, you’d ask Siri to find the name of the show and it would be on your screen within a second or two. Or let’s say you want all shows from PBS’s Nova series that are about wildlife. If the content database is very rich, you would just ask Siri to find you only the Nova episodes that have to do with wildlife. You could search for a specific topic and any episodes about that topic would come up in the on screen programming guide, where you could review the details of the episodes and then decide which one you want to watch.
Of course, we won’t know for sure what an Apple TV will be like until Apple actually announces it. But given the clues we have from Steve Jobs, the scenarios laid out above are pretty plausible, and I wouldn’t be surprised if much of the above features are part of this offering. With more and more video programs becoming available from more and more sources, helping people finding exactly what they want to watch and delivering it easily on demand will be the holy grail for a lot of companies. And given what Jobs told his biographer, it looks like Apple might be the first one to “crack it” after all.
Tim Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market intelligence firm in Silicon Valley.