Jun 012012
 

My approach in writing TheMacAdvocate is simple: I try to use common sense to divine Apple’s intentions or bash their ignorant detractors. Dealing with detractors is easy because they’re usually stupid. Divining is based almost exclusively on asking the question that drives all of Apple’s products and services: what problem does this solve? I’m going to take a leap here and try to apply this simplest of questions to Apple’s direction regarding the future of television. Part 1 deals with hardware question i.e. the Apple Television. Part 2 will focus on content.

What problem does Apple making a television solve? Regardless of what it is, any piece of Apple hardware will be compelling in terms of its industrial design, build quality and UI, but anything Apple makes also has to answer that fundamental question. What is the problem with “the television experience” today? Let me offer you my list, in order of decreasing annoyance:

1. I can’t watch what I want when I want to.

2. The quality of cable company UIs range from “meh” to “clawing my eyes out”; their UXs are uniformly bad.

3. I have the choice of using 2-6 remotes with crappy UXs or a universal remote that offers 40% of the functionality and a steep learning curve.

If you’re with me so far, let’s see how an Apple television would solve these problems:

1. It won’t. As has been bemoaned by everyone observing the content landscape, the vast majority of television content, especially sports programming, isn’t accessible in a way people want. It’s bundled with crap I don’t watch and is beholden (timeshifting capabilities notwithstanding) to a calendar and a clock. I’ll talk more about Apple’s prospects for changing this in Part 2.

2. Something an Apple television could definitely improve upon. A superior user experience is synonymous with their brand. However, even if Apple employed a CableCARD-based solution, this would require some integration/compromise with cable companies’ current offerings. I’ll also touch on this in Part 2.

3. I’m confident Apple could consolidate remote control devices and deliver a superior experience. See: the iPhone’s effect on the cell phone market, circa 2007.

The best Apple could hope for by releasing a television is to improve the way we interact with cable content – to the extent that Apple can fundamentally change that on their own – and with the content ported to iTunes. Access to iTunes content on your TV¬†is the AppleTV and cable box interaction/substitution doesn’t require a television. There is, however, something Apple could make that, in tandem with unprecedented access to content and an Apple on-screen guide, would represent an evolution of Apple’s hardware successes combined with its surging software sensation.

The AppleTV Remote.

Think about it: the form factor and touch interface of Apple’s iPhone/iPod Touch outfitted with some hardware enhancements and an instance of Siri on steroids. That solves the third problem, would help (paired with an Apple OSG) to solve the second problem and provides a hardware gateway to solve the first. Here’s what I think the Apple Remote 2.0 would look like:

  • ¬†Tactile feedback

Access to Senseg’s electrostatic feedback technology was something Apple was rumored to have prior to the launch of the New iPad. While it would make a nice iPad feature, it would huge for a remote. If you have to look at a remote to use it, you blew it. Think of all the high-end remotes from companies like Harmony: even with all the device-specific outputs and screen switching capabilities, you still have to look at the touchscreen to use its features. If Apple could incorporate Senseg’s tech into a remote control, the major impediment facing today’s touchscreen remotes disappears. Your screen would not only be able to host multiple device functions, it would transform into their hardware equivalents at the same time.

  • “SuperSiri” combined with an array of high-quality microphones

When Tim Cook sat to talk with ATD at D10, you could tell when he was talking about something Apple was going to bet big on by the width of his smirk. I know that pundits think this is an essential feature of an Apple television, but it has issues. How do you activate it? How accurate can it be if the input (your voice) is 10′ – 20′ from the microphone? One-button access to Siri from the remote erases the activation issue. Incorporating state-of-the-art microphone(s) erases the distance challenge.

  • Bluetooth, Wifi and IR

Connection to the AppleTV and AirPlay devices will be primarily via WiFi, but configuration of and connection to your home theater dinosaurs require an IR blaster.

  • Auto-configuration of media center devices

This is something that plays to one of Apple’s legendary strengths: it just works. Out of the box, the first thing you would do is set up the devices that make up your media center: televisions, tuners, Blu-ray players, etc. Apple would host all the configuration data in the Cloud and it would download directly to your device based one of Apple’s trademark setup wizards.

  • A form factor similar to the iPod Touch

I don’t think the design issues are all that relevant with respect to the prospect of the remote (and I have none of the imagination required to depict anything that would improve on it), but I predict it will be strongly reminiscent of Apple’s smartphone/MMP design.

A new and improved Apple Remote solves a problem – or at least part of a problem. It takes advantage of Apple’s existing successful hardware and software platforms, builds on the early success of Siri and incorporates new technologies that would revolutionize the way we interact with television content. It prevents Apple from having to compete in a multi-player, no-margin commoditized market while offering nearly all the benefits. I think this is the hardware that will define Apple’s entry into television.

 Posted by at 12:11 pm

  4 Responses to “Apple and the Future of Television, Part 1: Hardware”

  1. Heya JT – nice writeup as always. I have to think you’re pretty close with most of this. Whether or not any of this becomes reality, you’re at least thinking like Apple, not a “pundit”.

  2. That’s what I was thinking. I like the Apple TV they have now, but would prefer a better way to control it. Maybe this is what the 7″ ‘iPads’ are for, a remote? Not just a remote, but a super-duper remote, with all those features you described. People aren’t going to run out and replace their $1000 TV because Apple is building one. I’d buy a couple hundred dollar remote (people do now, with the Harmony) if Apple makes it awesome. (which is likely they could)
    I like your line of thinking on this. I think you’ll be proven correct on this.

  3. Apple has never catered to the past. I doubt they will go to much (any?) trouble to accommodate IR remotes. Clearly the future is RF and better, smart data interfaces. This may cause the rollout to appear slower, but will make it much cleaner. No floppy disks for you!

    Current TVs are a tuner and a display. With Apple the tuner is in the computer/aTV/cloud, so all they have to is provide a great display with great controls. FTC will need to take a hard look at confluences of traditional TV service providers and future data service providers to ensure there aren’t abuses of power.

  4. Apple may not cater to the past, but if they want to compete in the media center market, they’re going to have to make some concessions. IR is still the dominant dinosaur, although that is changing.

    Part of me really wants Apple to make a TV. Their displays are phenomenal. I just can’t see what value they can provide that can’t be captured by the AppleTV. If there is a major revision to the ATV interface at WWDC, as has been rumored, it will give a good sense of how much of that value can be.

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