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

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?