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  • The Never Ending Apple Television Report

    December 7th, 2011

    You can bet that once Steve Jobs was quoted as having licked the problem of fixing a TV's interface, in that best-selling autobiography from Walter Isaacson, speculation about the form of the new device would run rampant. Indeed, the ongoing discussion implies that today's TV market must be sadly broken to need an Apple solution.

    That, however, is based on some assumptions that may not actually be true. The main assumption is that there's something wrong with the way TVs work now, and consumers are begging for solutions. Really?

    When it came to digital music players, before the iPod arrived in 2001, they didn't work so well. Interfaces were obtuse, and you had to jump through hoops to download your music library. Of course, they also used USB 1.1, which was dreadfully slow. The fundamental iPod solutions were to use FireWire (later replaced with USB 2.0), adding a spiffy user interface, a reasonably-sized compact hard drive to store thousands of tracks, and integrate everything with iTunes.

    In short, the existing system was broken, and Apple provided a needed fix.

    While smartphones were pretty successful before the iPhone came along, Apple simplified the user interface to make it more consumer friendly, offered a snappy touchscreen, end-to-end integration, and all from a company that supposedly had no experience building mobile handsets. Even though the iOS has been updated annually, the fundamentals were there from the very first day, and the rest of the industry was thrown into heavy-duty copycat mode.

    When it came to the iPad, previous efforts to build commercially successful tablet computers had failed, despite Microsoft claiming every single year it would be the next great thing. To Microsoft, a tablet was just another portable PC, albeit with a touch-sensitive screen, generally employing a clumsy stylus, and a swivel capability. They were also more expensive than traditional notebooks, with no proven advantage except for certain vertical markets, such as medical offices.

    Apple's solution was to take the lessons learned from the iPhone and the iOS and scale them up to a larger form factor, one that was not just a consumption device, such as today's Amazon Kindle Fire, but a tool on which to perform many types of productive work. But a major advantage the iPad had over the competition was the result of Apple's ability to deliver it at a price much lower than industry expectations. Tim Cook's genius is to be able to manage inventory as well or better than anyone in the industry, and Apple made big deals for key components to keep the costs down. Thus, the iPad's price was not only reasonable, but Apple still made a huge profit from each and every sale.

    So what about TVs? Is there a need for a better set up interface, simpler channel selection and program recording capabilities, and improved integration of the various Internet streaming services?

    Nowadays, you have to contend with multiple boxes, including coping with the usually lame interface provided by your cable or satellite provider. If you want streaming, you get another appliance, and learn a different interface, or rely on the one delivered in your "connected" TV. Since the standard set top box is free or available for a low-cost rental, it's hard to find a space in which to properly integrate another box. The Apple TV is well designed and all, but it's still the second box, unless you eschew broadcast and cable TV.

    But the real question is whether users feel they are somehow being deprived in the present environment. Just watching your favorite programs involves the same routine you learned with your very first TV. You change the channel. If you want to record a show for later viewing, your set top box can usually manage that function with a couple of clicks, and there's usually a Season Pass option, where all new episodes of a show will be recorded. That is, of course, unless they conflict with other shows. You'll then be warned, and have to navigate a more complicated interface to make your choice. Since you can only record two shows at a time, while watching a third over the air via your set's built-in tuner, or a previously recorded selection, how does Apple improve upon that?

    One possibility is to offer different TV networks and other content offerings as separate streaming channels. If you can schedule an episode on a network for later view without tying up your own equipment, I suppose you'd get more flexibility. But if everything is streamed to your home, how about the ISP's bandwidth allotment? Yes, it may be unlimited in theory, but if more and more people are saturating the pipes, you'd find those often unmentioned limits being imposed real fast. This is particularly true if the ISPs were giving up cable TV business to Apple. They'd might just enact higher fees for such heavy users.

    Beyond content, there's the initial setup routine. Most of you just turn your set on, maybe navigate a quick setup menu, OK everything and then get on with your business. But wouldn't it be nice if the set was equipped with, say, a camera to measure the ambient light and color temperature, and automatically tune picture quality to conform, with perhaps an option to make a separate setting for a darkened or lighted room? If everything but your cable or satellite service were offered with Apple's famous spit and polish, maybe that would be a big advantage.

    But it all comes down to this: An Apple branded TV set may appeal to those willing to pay extra for a premium product, but are current owners dissatisfied with what they have? Are they putting off purchases because of interface and usability quibbles, or simply because they don't need or cannot afford a new model? Is today's TV viewing environment broken? I don't think so.



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    5 Responses to “The Never Ending Apple Television Report”

    1. dfs says:

      I can’t help thinking that the Apple TV is a solution in search of a problem.

    2. Drew Costen says:

      I completely disagree. I think television is fundamentaly broken and needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.

      The simple fact that we still have channels and timeslots for shows is all the proof we need that television is broken.

      The fact that I can't switch on my television and choose to watch any episode of any TV show I want to watch, anytime I want, is the reason I no longer even own a television set. It's the reason almost none of my friends have television sets either (and why those who do still own one don't have cable but instead use it as a monitor to watch downloaded shows on).

      I'd happily pay a (reasonable and affordable) monthly fee if I could watch all my shows online legitimately (and not just the latest two or three episodes of a series, but all the past seasons as well). In the meantime, there's no way I'm paying for the current outdated and ridiculous system of cable television, and from the studies I've read I'm not alone. More and more of us are cancelling the cable and turning to other means of getting our entertainment, and the television production industry has nobody but itself to blame.

    3. Shock Me says:

      For me the most broken thing about Cable TV as well as Broadcast TV is the adherence to a broadcast schedule. Worst of all is the antiquated concept of prime time. Even if TV remains ad-supported, if they REALLY wanted my eyeballs for more than one hour, they wouldn't schedule everything I want to see at the same time.

      I routinely watch shows from about 15 different networks. Five of those networks are local terrestrial broadcast networks carried by my cable provider. My actual antenna only picks up FOX and PBS. The remaining ten networks each have 2-3 shows each that I don't care to miss.

      If it were provided an hour at a time that is an opportunity for advertisers to have about 40 hours of my time per week. Instead programmers schedule 6 shows for say 9pm on Monday only two of which I can record and one I have to watch live or view on Hulu+.

      What if Hulu+ came with an iPad or tablet that sent signals to whatever large screen you happen to be closest to? What if all the scripted shows you watch were available as VOD at the same time as their first braodcast? What if TVs came with 5 or more ATSC tuners and enough storage to hold everything you wanted to see? What if we skipped the storage and streamed only what we wanted to see ALL the time including live sports, concerts and news events? What if you could just download or stream a game?

      All these things already exist in pieces all around us. Microsoft has games and offers some content and phones. Apple has games, music, movies, and some TV. Sony has games and actually owns content. Comcast has content, subscribers, and a network of cable waveguides.

      What if it came into our houses and the only thing we had to do was watch a few ads like when broadcast TV was free OTA?

    4. Jim says:

      My biggest beef with cable TV is that it seems so wasteful (of my money), because it provides hundreds of channels and thousands of shows that I never watch. And I can't reduce my monthly bill by opting out of those channels. Cable providers basically are big ISPs with huge networks that are so complex that fairly regularly there are glitches that degrade the viewing experience.

      I rarely watch live TV anymore either, using my TiVos (yes, plural) to capture the shows I want to watch. Keeping those all running smoothly is an ongoing maintenance chore for me, but the elegant user interface, time shifting and high-def capabilities are must-haves for me. (And don't tell me to go use the cable provider's DVRs, because they suck royally.)

      These are just several of the issues that bother me. I could go on.

      There's no technical reason why the experience could not be improved exponentially. Video data is data. It can be streamed over the Web just like any other data. Give me a big old data pipe, one set-top box for my home, and on-demand everything available in both standard def and high def. Give me an elegant interface to find, queue, and play what I want to watch when I want to watch it. For live sports and other events, let me stream local broadcast channels, ESPN, etc.

      Gene Steinberg Reply:

      @Jim, The cable and satellite providers should be offering ala carte, but the proposals they've made end up costing the customer more money. This is particularly true when you want channels from different tiers, plus some premium offerings.

      As to bandwidth, this is the argument I brought up: It may not matter how much data you want to use, but if the broadband providers impose stiff caps, you may end up paying whatever you'd otherwise save from sticking with regular cable and satellite.

      Peace,
      Gene

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