by John Sciacca
Immediately prior to my leaving for CES, I figured it was a good time for a bit of speculation. And nowhere is speculation in the tech world more popular than with Apple (who doesn’t even bother attending CES by the way).
Apple is notoriously one of the most tight-lipped companies around. In fact, the CIA would do well to sit though a two-day “How to keep your mouth shut-the-hell-up!” symposium at the Cupertino headquarters.
It can be the eve of MacWorld, immediately prior to launch, and Apple will say nothing about any new products that may or may not be in the works. (You know, unless some low-grade tech happens to lose a top secret prototype iPhone4 in a bar somewhere.) So, you know, unless that happens, mum is totally the word at Apple.
So the rumor mills started up at a frenzied pace with this single quote from an interview with Walter Isaacson, the author of the absolutely fantastic bio on Steve Jobs: “I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use,” [Jobs] told me. “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.”
The techie world took “I finally cracked it” to mean that Jobs’ final legacy to Apple will be an ingeniously designed TV uber-embedded with Jobsian DNA design and impregnated with a last dose of awesomeness and that the world of TV viewing and usage is about to radically change as we know it.
Since then the internet has been BLOWING UP with the absolute, positive, sure-as-the-sun-rises-tomorrow news and predictions that an Apple TV launch is imminent. Forgetting the size for a moment — though I imagine there will be 40- and 46-inch versions because A) those seem to be some of the most popular LCD panel sizes currently and B) I just envision Apple industrial designers deeming anything larger than a 46-inch set to be a ghastly abomination and aesthetic affront to the civility of any design and living space; I just don't think that Apple is going to have a clear-cut winner on their hands here.
So, even though I wrote a blog about how an AppleTV could provide the ultimate in control, why do I think this venture won’t be successful like the reinvention of the music industry (iTunes), music delivery (iPod), cellular (iPhone), tablet (iPad) and digital filmmaking (Pixar)? Four words:
Because TV is different.
Here are 10 reasons why I think Apple faces bigger hurdles in this venture:
#1 The Original AppleTV
Apple already tried this once and it did, well, OK I guess. But it is nowhere NEAR the runaway success of any of the other Apple products. (They should have called it iTV. Nothing with a lower-case i ever fails. It’s like some immutable law.) Also, this device – while very cool and offering an incredibly slick interface and having great integration with iCloud and iTunes and all of that – is a total outlier in the Apple line-up costing ONLY $99. And even then, it just isn’t that successful. So, it seems like they have already taken a stab at the TV world – with a device that will work with ANY TV (well, any TV that has an HDMI input now) and received only a lukewarm reception. And, this was a device that came out during the reign of his Jobs-ness, meaning that he got to see it through from start to finish. Not really a good portent…
“But, John. You’re an idiot! Control is the one that that Apple absolutely positively, 100% knows better than anyone or anything else! And, you’re an idiot!”
Yes, I know. But, the thing is, a TV is not just about being a TV anymore. I think that if it was as 100% simple as boiling it down to a TV, Cable service and Internet, Apple would kill it. They could control and totally own that ecosystem and make it magical and special and filled with pink, fluffy unicorns.
But it isn’t.
I install TVs for a living and I can tell you that in almost ALL cases, even the most basic of systems involve a cable box and a Blu-ray player in addition to the TV. And these are by a variety of manufacturers and generally provide only the most basic – line of sight, one-way only infrared – level of control. To interface with these devices is going to require some kind of control that not only A) works but that is B) reliable and C) easy to use and D) offers access to all of your control commands.
Also, Steve Jobs notoriously hated buttons. It is said that even the single button on the iPhone/iPad bothered him. Which, OK, I totally understand. The smooth touchscreen surface is crazy elegant and beautiful. And when I am actively using – ie: staring at – my iPad, iDig it and iLove it. But, having installed MANY systems, I can tell you, not everyone LOVES a touchscreen for controller their AV system.
Let me give you two examples from my very own home. I have a $1,500 URC MX-6000 touchscreen remote control that will do just about anything I want. I also have a $600 URC MX-780 wand-style remote. The 780 is the option we use EVERY day. The MX-6000 sits on the counter in the kitchen and is used for checking the weather, bumping the volume (usually down when my wife is around) or firing up the system before I get to the couch. When I am using my system and I want to change a channel or change the volume or do any of the simple things that I can do by feel, I don’t want to have to keep looking down at a screen to make sure that I am touching the right area of the glass. Could they develop a multi-touch swipe gesture for no-look channel and volume changes? Probably. But that still isn’t going to address issue number two: The screen brightness. Like many people I prefer to watch in a darkened room, and when I turn the iPad on, it produces a retina-constricting blast of light that makes you wince. That’s not cool.
I pray that they don’t try and produce some kind of on screen icons and pointer or some other fiasco to overcome this.
Chances are you have a movie collection or like to rent movies. For the foreseeable future, this is going to mean that you’ll need a disc player in your system. And when you have a disc player, you need to be able to control said player. (See above.)
Possible solutions to this could be integrating a Blu-ray player INTO the TV via some side-loading slot. However I have seen a spectacularly high failure rate of these things – literally EVERY ONE that we have installed have had the disc portion fail. Maybe Apple can engineer a better, more reliable player, but still, do you really want you thousand-dollar TV to be junk because your $100 Blu-ray broke?
A second option would be a re-purposed version of the Super-Drive that would connect with Thunderbolt or something. This could carry control and audio/video signals to the TV and then allow you to live in the Apple universe again with some awesome app or something. But, while a standalone player would be a viable solution it would mean having a (clunky) separate box to deal with – not Apple’s style. Plus, I don’t want to HAVE to buy Apple’s player; maybe I like my player already. Or maybe I have a Kaleidescape – Ha! I DO! – and I want to use that. Now what?
An AWESOME option would be if they would do something similar to their iTunes match for music. Let me rip all of my DVDs and Blu-rays into iTunes, and then you store then in my iCloud account and then you let me just stream all the content that I own through iTunes. THAT would totally work AND be super-mega-jumbo awesome. Of course, doing that is still technically illegal right now, and you couldn’t have Apple endorsing that. Or they’d have to deal with movie studios and their weird licensing stuff and there is just NO WAY that you are going to get licensing and approval for EVERY film someone owns. So even if you somehow magically had 99% of your content in iTunes, there is going to come a time when you want to watch a disc, and then you are back in the “how do I play this?” conundrum.
#4 The Cable Box
Look, I will be the first to admit that I have NO LOVE for the cable box. It seems to be the most unreliable, prone-to-breaking component in the system; it frequently locks up, has a hard drive that is only slightly more reliable than a can of potted meat (uh, yeah, I’m not sure how that relates either, just go with it) and can’t even offer discrete power commands. But…it’s a necessary evil. If you want to get premium programming from your cable provider, and like to time-shift/DVR shows, you are going to need a cable box.
“Ha! I knew you were an idiot! What about TiVo, Mr. Smart Guy?”
Yes. TiVo. It’s an awesome interface, to be sure, and has a much more robust hard drive and better integration options. But it is fairly costly and requires a paid subscription service. Let’s just take those first two off the table, though, because Apple could roll it into the cost and make the service free. What you can’t ignore is TiVo’s real shortcoming: with premium programming – HBO, Showtime, ESPN-HD, etc. etc. – you need a CableCARD to decode these channels. And if you have EVER installed a CableCARD then you know that it means working VERY closely with the cable company – over and over – and that it was meant as a punishment for something you did very, very naughty in a previous life. Plus you might need a switched-digital adapter which may or may not work and then more service calls and pairings and…
Now, Apple could eliminate the need for a cable box issue by including a 1 TB drive – or using network storage like TimeCapsule – and then just bullying cable companies into letting Apple sets work without requiring any kind of decoder for premium channels. But that would mean having licensing deals and agreements in place all across the country with all the different cable providers and also probably the premium networks themselves. Providers that LIKE to rent you the box at $10-15 a month and sit back and collect those rental monies. And what’s their incentive to give this up? Love of customers and cool tech? Uh, yeah, sure.
OK, OK. Let’s say that they DO figure everything out with cable providers. It was a hard slog, but Apple had some goons kidnap someone’s kid and then a couple of fingers-through-the-mail later, they get some deal worked out. Great. Yay! Except, a lot of people get their TV from satellite. Either in rural areas or just because they had the cable company so badly or because they love the football package. Whatever. How are they going to integrate with DirecTV and Dish? Yeah. Control. I know, right?
#6 Ease of Install
Part of the Apple ethos is that things are simple, intuitive and they just work. An iPod or iPad don’t even come with any instructions. El Steve-o believed you should just be able to intuitively plug it in and start enjoying it. And if it was as easy as screw in the cable jack from your wall, plug in power and then an auto-configuring find/connect-to-my-WiFi GUI wizard handled all the rest, it would be simple. But since I don’t see any way around the DVD/Blu-ray and cable box issue – not to mention if you are connecting to a satellite or sound system or VCR or game system or whatever – and then configuring the TV to control these items and connecting some kind of gangly IR emitters onto the other gear and… Yuck. That’s not Apple at all. But once you get past the “it’s more than JUST a TV” then you have to start dealing with these other issues.
Siri seems to be the Golden App for Apple now, and was really the “one more thing” from the iPhone4-s launch that kept that phone from being the huge, colossal let down of it NOT being a true iPhone5. And I think Siri is mega cool. (Disclaimer: I have never actually used or even seen Siri in action.) And if you want to send a message to someone, set a reminder, get the weather in Vegas, find the nearest curry hut or locate that bottle of rare absinthe for Wilkinson, Siri is your go-to-gal. All the analysts are assuming that Siri is going to be the killer app for Apple TV. But…
Do you really want to control you TV by talking to it? Let’s say that Apple eliminated ALL of the possibilities where background noise affected performance, or where a TV program said, “Off” and your system turned off, or any of the other possible operational issues…let’s just say that the voice control worked perfectly and flawlessly. Do you want to have to talk to your TV? Now, I can say that there are TIMES when that would be cool. I’m in the kitchen, my hands are in the muck, and I want to shout out, “Turn the TV on to Survivor,” and it would be totally cool to have that happen. (And I’m just gonna assume that Siri knows I meant the HD channel and not the analog one, cause that’s how my Siri rolls.)
But sitting there on the couch alone, watching TV, holding your second glass of scotch and talking to your remote. It just screams of lonely, awkward, weird and I’ve-got-someone-in-my-basement. But, Steve Jobs is amazing, and he has constantly reinvented things and given us things we need that we didn’t even know we needed, so let’s even get past the awkward weirdness of it.
But STILL I cannot see anyone wanting to be all “Channel up. Channel up. Channel up. Uh, guide. Show me all the upcoming re-runs of Teen Mom and Design Star.” (That was my wife using Siri by the way.) That would just be so lame. And I can press a “previous channel” button in less time than I can SAY “previous channel.” Plus it is less effort. And I might have scotch in my mouth. So the voice interaction is going to HAVE to be a fall back to some kind of regular control.
#8 Net Content
Remember when Google TV was gonna come along and dominate the living room? It was going to be the future of TV, with Google embedded, integrating search in ways never before imagined, changing everything. Ewwww. (Scary monster voice sound.) And then when it came out all the networks were like, “Uh, yeah. No. You can’t have our stuff. You’re device is not supported.”
“But you can watch this stuff on any computer! We want to just do the same thing!”
“Uh-huh. We hear you. But, no. This content is our ball, and we’re all picking it up and going home.”
“Wait, I think I might play with them for a bit. They seem nice...”
“Shut up, Fox! We said WE’RE ALL GOING HOME!”
“OK. Sorry Google.”
“Whatever, you bunch a douches.”
So, it basically became a regular TV that kind of controlled your cable box that offered a clunky Web browser and a horrible complex, button cluster-F of a remote. Oh, with no backlighting to boot.
I think Apple can sort some of this stuff out, making a more integrated search, working in iTunes content, better Netflix search integration, maybe getting some or all of the networks on board, but I still contend that the vast majority of people watching TV are not totally ready to cut the cord because of the lack of content and wanting to watch what they want when they want the way that cable and on-demand programming does. In the future when every show is constantly available on the internet – in universal file formats that don’t require installing drivers or little widget programs or some new version of Flash or ActiveX or whatever – then, yes, Internet TV will be the way to go. We’re not there. Yet.
Apple historically likes to live in a closed world of its own choosing, but with TV, you can’t. What if I want to integrate the video with better audio and connect it to my surround sound system? (Cause let me assure you, I totally do.) Even if I connect EVERYTHING to the Apple TV and just run a single audio cable back to the set – possible, even high-res with HDMI’s audio return channel – I need to be able control my receiver. Do I need a separate remote to turn the receiver on and raise and lower the volume? Or will there be an IR emitter and some “enter your model to find the control code” walk-thru?
The set will undoubtedly command a premium. And if modern history — Pioneer Elite, Fujitsu, NuVision, Sony QUALIA — has shown us anything, it is that premium-priced video is not the way to go. However as Apple is the only company that seems to be able to hold-the-line when it comes to being able to sell CE gear at a profit, I think they’ll be able to sell it at a slight premium. The faithful always seem to find a way to be able to afford what the master supplied. But for a TV to be successful, it has to have adoption beyond the Apple-coven, and the TV market is a cutthroat world. And when you have 60-inch, 3D, 1080p, Net-enabled, brillion-to-one (yes, that’s brillion not billion; it’s a number my daughter and I made up, referring to how much I love her) contrast sets selling for $1000, then you are going to have to be some pretty amazing tech to command a giant market premium, which Apple has historically done. They are not looking to reinvent the TV world just so they can sell thousands/millions of sets at their cost.
Macs are more expensive than their competition. iPads are more expensive than their competition. And an Apple TV will presumably be more expensive as well. How much more and what it will offer remain to be seen. But if you are going at a premium price, then you are going to start being compared performance wise with TVs the likes of Elite, Panasonic VT and Samsung D8000. As great as an Apple TV MAY be, it is not going to offer the kick-ass, no-holds-barred performance of the top offerings of these guys so it better keep its price way south.
The one reason why it STILL wouldn't surprise me if this thing was a total homerun:
At the end of the day, this is likely the FINAL new-new product (not just an evolution like iPad3 or iPhone5 or iTouch13) that we'll see that will have had the direct input and guidance and brainpower of Steve Jobs behind it. And for that reason alone, even though I think it could be yet another nail in the coffin of the custom install world — we totally wouldn't be able to sell this thing or probably even be needed to install it — I kinda, sorta can't wait to see what it looks like and does. Steve, maybe this will be your one more thing afterall...