Whispers of an Apple-branded television set have been popping up since the beginning of human history (yes, that long), with even the late Steve Jobs tipping his hand to his biographer, Walter Isaacson, informing him that he’d “finally cracked” the secret to an Apple television set:
“I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use. It would be seamlessly synched with all of your devices and with iCloud. It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.”
And just recently, Bloomberg quoted the ever-mysterious “people with knowledge of the project”—three of them, even!—as saying the Apple TV (not to be confused with Apple TV which, confusingly, lives in the iPod section of Apple’s website) will be spearheaded by “Jeff Robbin, who helped create the iPod in addition to the iTunes media store.”
The Current State of Connected TV
Assuming this Apple TV will be a connected set—it’ll seamlessly synch everything, after all—here’s what Apple’s up against.
You’ve got second-input boxes, like the Roku and Apple TV (again, not to be confused with the Apple TV) along with newer Blu-ray players that offer a selection of streamable content from the likes of Netflix and other providers. The disconnect from your actual TV, however, is that you need to switch to a second input source to use these things. It’s not rocket science, but it’s not Apple-simple. Tell the average TV-owning consumer to “just flip to input two real quick” and see what happens.
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Then you’ve got the first-input box from your cable company—Comcast, Verizon, DirecTV, or whatever service you use. The interface on the box may look like it was cobbled together by a surly, color-blind engineer with an axe to grind, but at least everything’s in one place. The downside, of course, is that your content selection is limited. You’ve got whatever’s on TV, whatever you’ve recorded, and whatever’s available on-demand. But that’s about it.
Then you’ve got the outliers like Google TV, a box that sits in between your cable box and your TV. It’s still a first-input device, like your cable box, but you have access to both your cable content and web content. On paper, it’s the best of both worlds. In reality, the interface is clunky and certain content providers—especially the major networks—throw a tantrum when you try to stream their content via Google TV’s web browser instead of watching it as they want you to watch it: on TV, the old-fashioned way.
And finally, we’ve got a newly-emerging class of connected TV, one in which the cable companies offer their content to you, but you supply the box.
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Verizon, you’ll recall, will soon let you use an Xbox 360 as your cable box—which means you’ll have regular TV programming, plus a host of streaming services. It’s similar to Google TV, except the cable companies can control it—you still have to subscribe to a cable package for it to work.
While Verizon’s early foray into the “TV anywhere” idea will be with the Xbox 360, during a presentation I recently attended, the company’s senior VP of product development Shadman Zafar remarked that Verizon is “actively” working to extend the same type of linear TV programming “to many, many, many consumer electronic devices.” AT&T U-Verse subscribers can already watch live TV on an Xbox 360, Time Warner has a live TV iPad app, and Comcast is reportedly working on a TV anywhere service called AnyPlay.
It would be in Apple’s best interests to create a TV set compatible with as many of the aforementioned TV anywhere services as possible. It would pave the way for a simple interface since it’d be a first-input device, and we’d have access to linear television programming, along with content from iTunes, Netflix, and whichever other services Apple wanted to throw in.
Also, it could be just the thing to further accelerate TV anywhere adoption. The new crop of live TV offerings we’re either already seeing or that are currently in development? Many of them are built for the iPad. If Apple builds a TV and consumers flock to it, content providers and cable operators are going to want to be able to get themselves in front of all those eyeballs, too.
The worst thing Apple could do would be to assume it can offer a TV set capable of turning massive numbers of TV watchers into cord cutters. The system’s just not set up that way right now—too much power still rests in the hands of the content providers and cable operators. Offering an Apple TV set that simply has the current version of Apple TV built into it just won’t cut it. And offering a Google TV-like layer that sits between a cable box and the screen would be too complicated for regular, tech-fearing consumers.
The only other option would be if Apple could somehow convince all the major content providers to completely bypass the cable operators to offer true, linear (read: live) a la carte programming delivered over your internet connection. Apple has indeed disrupted industries before (see: iTunes and its effect on the music industry) and something like this would more or less overturn the entire TV industry—but it’d be one hell of a feat.