I don’t think Apple will release an HDTV, but I’m in the minority. My reasoning, as reductive as I can present it: regarding media, 90% of Apple’s value to consumers is content. This content can currently be accessed through the AppleTV set-top box.
Steve Jobs used the term “bag of hurt” to describe the BluRay format; I think he might use similar language to describe the HDTV television landscape, but to hear “making an Apple-branded TV” spout with certainty from the ballwashers of some analysts, you’d think Apple could just shove the existing AppleTV into a high-end HDTV. But that won’t work, and I’m going to swallow a little vomit to explain why.
The GoogleTV Didn’t Suck
I know, I know: I busted this thing’s balls when it appeared on the market, and in the end it panned out just like I – and a number of other people – knew it would: on a greased rail being shot off the TigerDirect clearance rack. But those who ignore their history are doomed repeat it, so let’s see what it did right, where it went wrong and think about what the GoogleTV’s failure could mean for an Apple HDTV.
The list of things GoogleTV does that AppleTV doesn’t isn’t long, but there are a couple of ambitious features that, on their face, make it a better TV-integrated device.
An Integrated UI
When you’re watching TV, you can use the GoogleTV remote (the 2-hands Sony version or the “LOL” 2 hands + lap Logitech version) to not only control the TV, but access the GoogleTV options. These options are overlaid in such a way that you can still see what’s playing on current channel. The “type to search” interface allows you to looks for any media content – whether it’s on TV now or available for sale, rental or on the Internet.
Some of GoogleTV’s functions allows you to use picture-in-picture – say to Tweet while you’re watching House. If you’re a DISH Network subscriber, you also get access to your DVR functions. All these functions co-exist with your HDTV without the user having to change inputs (related note: how is it possible for the high-speed HDMI standard to be so fucking slow to change inputs). This “always on” capability is one major way GoogleTV distinguishes itself from Apple’s offering.
In my opinion, this feature isn’t as much about capability as it is about scale. The AppleTV does offer access to non-cable content such as Netflix, MLB/NBA TV, YouTube and Vimeo, for example. GoogleTV offers access to any content that isn’t tied down (which ended up being part of its demise, but more on that later). In addition to Apple’s non-iTunes content, GoogleTV offers access to Amazon, Napster, Pandora, not to mention network offerings from HBO, TNT, CNN and Cartoon Network, to name a few. The Chrome browser also comes baked-in to the GoogleTV, so you can surf the web right from your television.
So What the Fuck Happened?
So you have a device that plays nice with your cable box, providing you with access to its content along with a buttload of Internet video and music content and the Internet itself. Why did the GoogleTV faceplant?
The first and biggest obstacle. When introduced, the set-top version of GoogleTV, the Logitech Revue, retailed for $299. Sony’s bundled TVs, which are already at the high-end of the market price-wise, added a premium to the HDTV’s and Blu-Ray players that baked-in GoogleTV’s functionality. $299 is a fair price for a Blu-Ray player/DVR/cable box, but not for something that lays over all of these devices and provides nothing but redundant functionality, a web browser and some connected content.
Access to Content
Definitely the biggest misstep Google made when crowing about the value of the GoogleTV prior to its release. Imagine this: access to all those network and cable stations you could only get on your laptop’s browser before! Imagine ABC, Hulu and Comedy Central on your HDTV: the way it was meant to be viewed! Now imagine the networks and cable companies slamming its doors on the dicks of people (yes, they were all men) thinking they were going to bask in free episodes HDTV – one by one. Far be it from Google to actually secure any of the relationships that would have been required to keep that from happening. Those episodes of Lost that cost millions apiece to produce want to be free!
Apple Didn’t Make It
It pains me to say that the GoogleTV UI/UX didn’t totally suck, but it did suffer from the characteristic lack of polish that comes from having engineers outnumber designers on your campus 400 to 1. It’s basically Android on a TV. Inconsistencies, glitches and some flat-out labyrinthian UI quirks doomed a product that was already crippled on several other fronts.
How Does This Apply to an Apple HDTV?
To ask the question (as I have) another way: what’s the difference between Apple building the AppleTV UI into a high-end HDTV and stamping their logo on it and Apple continuing to produce the AppleTV the way it does now as a standalone device? To my mind, the only things that could justify such a move would involve at least one of the following:
Integration of the UI
An Apple HDTV could work just like Sony’s GoogleTV. For that to happen would require Apple to mesh its UI with your cable provider’s, on the same plane as Apple’s own iTunes content to make it a “input one device” – the device you turn on to watch TV. It’s not out of the realm of possibility.
A Feature That GoogleTV Didn’t Have
DVR integration, broader access to cable channel and network Internet content or a blow-your-mind UI that ties it all together. Again, not out of the realm of possibility.
A Reasonable Price
This is a little bit fungible, especially if Apple hits it out of the park on the first two items. There aren’t too many things hardware-wise that you can do to really differentiate yourself in the HDTV market, and this is a mature, saturated, commodity-good market as it is. Remember: in relative terms, the AppleTV at $299 was a flop; at $99 it was a success.
If Apple can break new ground with the “iTV”, I could imagine a universe where it makes its own HDTV. But when I break it down to the fundamental question: “What can Apple do with an HDTV that it can’t do with the AppleTV?”, I do not see it happening. Sorry, Gene.