The Apple Connected TV Report: Just What Did Steve Jobs Crack?

November 1st, 2011

I suppose it’s going to be a long time before we stop talking about the best-selling biography of Steve Jobs from author Walter Isaacson. It’s filled with fascinating details, and tantalizing clues. Consider Apple’s “hobby,” the Apple TV, which continues to be a product in search of an end game.

Now the claim that Jobs found or “cracked” the solution or formula only raises more questions. If Apple is going to build their own TV set, what can they offer aside from the expected slick iOS-inspired interface, integration with other Apple gear, the Siri personal assistant, and support for iCloud? Other than being built into the TV itself, thus offering a simplified setup menu (something the average TV user will rarely use after setup), what are we going to see that you can’t get on an Apple TV today?

The unanswered question is all about content. Does Apple hope to supplement existing cable and satellite services, or replace them? If the former, you’d still be forced to contend with the existing set top boxes and DVRs. What I suppose Apple could do is allow their custom user interface to act like a universal remote, allowing you to choose channels and schedule and record episodes without having to interact with the usually crummy interface the cable and satellite boxes deliver. This shouldn’t require any special licensing agreement. Apple’s elegant user interface would to act as a substitute for the functions of a standard remote control, working behind the scenes to issue the necessary commands to a set top box. After all, just about every TV and set top box remote can be configured to work with other devices. And translating the service’s standard display menus ought to be a simple process.

Certainly putting a pretty interface on complex commands is already part of Mac OS X and the iOS, both of which contain Unix-based cores. If you’ve ever tried to figure out the Unix command line structure, and how Apple’s operating systems make those functions seem so simple, you’ll know what I mean.

On the surface, this would seem a clumsy solution, but it may be the best way for Apple to deliver all the TV content you get now, without forcing you to cut the cord.

The other solution would be for Apple to somehow expand content offerings way beyond what you can get today. You certainly cannot rely on iTunes and Netflix, plus the smattering of other options, to deliver a reasonable percentage of the content that any cable or satellite provider offers on a subscription basis. Even if Hulu is added, it wouldn’t be enough.

Those 300 or so broadcast and cable stations that are generally included in your TV provider’s bill of fare include scripted shows, reality shows, live sports, news and other events. Maybe you don’t need all that stuff, but I suspect most of you want to be able to watch so-called “live” TV from time to time. How is Apple supposed to handle that dilemma? Or do they expect to provide slimmed-down substitutes that they hope will satisfy most customers?

The reason this question arises is based on the statements from Steve Jobs some time back that the standard cable or satellite box, available free or as a cheap rental, is the major impediment towards the ultimate success of an Apple TV. Even if the capabilities are expanded and built into an Apple branded TV set, how is that going to change?

Sure, I suppose it’s possible for Apple to set themselves up as the replacement for Comcast, Cox Communications, Warner Cable, AT&T U-verse, DirecTV, Dish Network and all the rest. To do that, however, they’d have to sign the very same agreements to carry cable channels, plus find a way to somehow offer local stations in the mix. If Apple could manage such an achievement, and it’s going to be difficult, they’d still have to contend with the problems of saturating broadband bandwidth to deliver content for many customers, not to mention dealing with the vagaries of an Internet provider, such as those occasional service hiccups or outright outages.

Does Apple really want to play that game?

Now with all that spare cash in the bank, Apple could, I suppose, consider setting up their own satellite networks, offering themselves up as direct competitors to existing TV providers. Now it can take several years to set up such a system, not to mention the estimated $50 to $400 million fees for launching each satellite in their system. Also, for this to work, Apple would have to consider providing service to customers in Europe and elsewhere. Would they really want to risk the expense of building up infrastructures and satellite systems there too?

Frankly, the very idea doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. I’m skeptical about the prospects of an Apple connected TV, but I’m more skeptical about Apple trying to replace existing content delivery systems. Maybe my suggestion about software that acts as a universal remote control makes the most sense. That way, Apple can still offer their own content through iTunes and the streaming companies with whom they have licensees, allow you to keep your cable and satellite connections, and offer seamless integration for everything.

Is that the solution Steve Jobs devised in his final days? I have no way of knowing, but just thinking about the possibilities makes me extremely curious. How about you, gentle reader?

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6 Responses to “The Apple Connected TV Report: Just What Did Steve Jobs Crack?”

  1. Jim says:

    There’s very little that I watch these days that isn’t time-shifted, even if only by a few minutes, using TiVo hooked up to my cable provider via cable card. The content engine for Apple TV, now and forever, will be iTunes. iTunes today could provide maybe 60-70 percent of what I watch, were I willing to pay for it a la carte. I could save $100 month if I dropped cable (except for the Internet access). Now if Apple could up its content to 90-100 percent of what I watch, including some kind of streaming for live sports (which I could pause at will), and add to that a super-elegant Apple TV interface to sweeten the deal, I’d have no problem dropping cable, and use the $100 to buy the content I really want to watch.

  2. Shock Me says:

    I suspect each network will get an app and iTunes will manage the subscriptions not on a per episode basis but on a per show or per network basis depending on the requirements of the content provider. Both ABC and Hulu apps for the iPad are a good guide for TV programming available over IP. Whether the broadband providers scuttle it in favor of their own TV offering is another question though.

    To be honest all I really need is a way to get the shows I would normally capture with a DVR to appear on demand on all my Apple devices including Apple TV. I would also like the option to own particular episodes for the few that are worth viewing more than once. Each TV app should provide a live streaming component at at least 60 Hz 1080i quality.

    If they could deliver that for $100 up front and less than $100 to $140 per month including broadband I would sign up immediately.

  3. Kaleberg says:

    The iPad solution would be to reduce the cable companies, who are already fighting with the content providers, to broadband internet providers and then let the content providers sell apps, either original shows or various packages of real time or on-demand video. Apple can just set up a simple, you pick your price, you give us 30%, you get access to our customers who may be running on Macs, iPads, iPhones or iTVs.

    Right now, the cable executives are likely to balk, but they’re being squeezed on a number of sides. They might even like to get out of the middle and just take a solid monthly take without having to share it with anyone. Apple would be in a similar situation, and big content would still have its big audiences and even better data on what people are actually watching. That last is likely to be revolutionary. Remember what happened when bookstores started to report actual sales and the genres took off. Remember what happened when the record stores started to report actual sales and country music got out of its ghetto. I’m betting we’ll see something like that for television in five or ten years.

  4. dfs says:

    One big problem with all these schemes is that television programming is fundamentally different from music. Mick Jagger doesn’t craft a tune differently for Milwaukee than for Pittsburgh , but, besides fare provided by the networks, such as could be broadcast if the networks were to be turned into “broadband internet providers”, there is all the local and regional stuff we get via cable. How exactly is that programming material to be handled? I watch local news (for what it’s worth), and just last week, besides NFL and college games, I watched our local high school’s game. I also caught a telecast of a meeting of our city council. And of course, television advertising is vital for the health of our local economy and television plays an equally important role in local and regional political campaigns. So my take is that for the foreseeable future internet t. v., no matter of what kind, is going to be a supplement to cable, but cable is going to be our mainstay for a good long time. And, other than providing an easier and friendlier interface than TiVo, etc., I still can’t figure out what Apple TV is supposed to give us that we don’t already have. It seems like a solution in search of a problem.

    • @dfs, That’s the reason why I posed my possible solution, having Apple TV and the full TV set function as universal remotes to access content received via your cable or satellite provider. Yes, I suppose it’s possible to have each TV station create an iOS app that can be launched as a channel in Apple TV, but on a practical basis it would be a bear to implement.

      The best way for Apple to handle this still has to be the whole widget with the added ability to integrate with existing services. So long as you need to run the cable or satellite box with a separate interface and input switching, or rely on an antenna for extra content, Apple fails.


  5. dfs says:

    There is one area in which an Apple TV might fill a need, although it’s one in which Apple doesn’t seem to have any particular interest: as a tool for the home (and maybe even pro) movie maker. Working in your office, you edit your footage on your Mac, or even a little bit on your iPad, then you use your Apple TV to throw your work-in-progress or finished product onto the t. v. in your den to see what you’ve got and enjoy the results. Since HDTV cameras are now well within the reach of the average consumer, and since Apple already makes items of software for the benefit of this market, it would make a certain amount of sense to provide hardware for it as well. The other thing an Apple TV could do that current DVR’s can’t or won’t is facilitate the archiving of broadcast material by letting you download it to your storage device, although this would of course drive the industry nuts because of the copyright implications.

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