Thursday, November 17, 2011 at 2:41PM
One of the last things Steve Jobs managed to do on his way out was fire up the imagination of every tech pundit out there about some mysterious Apple TV device. For months now we have heard, read and seen people discuss the possibility of Apple entering the TV market with some device that will "kick butt". But one little comment made by Jobs appearing in the Isaacson biography seems to have gotten everyone excited. While talking about wanting to create an integrated television set that would sync with all iDevices to iCloud and would have the simplest possible interface once could imagine he added the words "I finally cracked it". That's all it took. The remark carried so much weight it even seemed to affect Apple's share value for a while. But what exactly was he talking about ? Did he mean the AppleTV now being sold at Apple Stores for $99 ? Was he hinting at some new hardware device that would include a monitor and would replace our living room plasma or LCD ? Or was he actually talking about something that we would be using our iPad for through apps ? The bigger question is: why should Apple even be looking at this business of television ? The company makes money selling hardware, repeatedly if possible, using software they control and ferrying content to us in a manner they can at least oversee. Why would they sell us a piece of "furniture" we might only replace every ten years while being at the mercy of networks and cable operators the world over ?
When word got out that Apple would be entering the telephony business in the middle of the last decade, everyone reacted in disbelief. Why would Apple get into that mess and what could they hope to contribute or even get out of it ? With the benefit of hindsight we now know exactly what they had in mind. So it is possible that there is once again some vision at play here, something we're not seeing, a plan we don't yet grasp. But I have a hard time imagining Apple getting into a business that would entail selling me hardware I would only replace a decade from now. So maybe a full fledged TV is not what they have in mind.
One idea mentioned by some of the experts is that Apple would encourage the networks to come out with apps for iOS, like the Bloomberg TV+ app that allows us to watch the Bloomberg Channel live. In a recent earnings call for CBS, Les Moonves, the CEO, stated that he had turned down a proposed Apple TV deal. That comment would lead us to believe there might be something to the idea of the iOS app suggestion. But how compelling would such a solution be ? Maybe coupled with a Newsstand style "folder", like the one Apple forces us to have on the front page of the iPad starting with iOS5, this might be a manageable proposition. On a side note, that little Newsstand gimmick which won't budge from your home screen on the iPad may well be what most contributed to Condé Nast declaring a few weeks back that iPad subscriptions for their digital editions of magazines were up 268 percent since Newsstand was introduced. Talk about enticing network or other TV channels to actually buy into this concept.
The latest entrant in the rush to get into the streaming TV business comes from Sony. While it is not yet clear what they have in mind, Sony CEO Howard Stringer was heard recently stating he had spent the last five years building a platform so he could compete against Steve Jobs. Of all the big players Apple has affected in the world of Technology, one of the biggest losers is probably Sony. While numerous other developments helped kick Sony off the top of the heap (a decade ago if you were in the market for a new TV you would be looking at Sony's offerings before anything else - that is no longer the case today) the one thing that they were much too slow to react to was how to tackle the digitization of consumer electronics with something that was proprietary and unique, and preferably using a closed, integrated system, a la Apple. A decade ago if you had said one tech company would dominate the world of music it would have made sense to imagine Sony achieving that goal. They were in the music business with their record labels (the content) and they were the company that brought the Walkman to the world (the pipeline). But at some point they dropped the ball and Apple came out the winner. One of the main reasons nobody seems to be able to compete against Apple in much of what they have done these past few years is because they created a closed system in which they control every aspect of the business, from the store to the pipeline to the tech toy you use to consume the product. But what of the TV industry ? In what way can Apple create such an integrated system without having to deal with cable companies and heir ilk ?
Some of this remains to be seen. It is not clear what Apple has in mind. Will they offer some sort of combination channel app structure and DVR functionality in their devices to try and circumvent the cable operators ? Time will tell, but there is one thing I am pretty certain of. I know what the "secret sauce" will be. When Apple introduced the iPhone 4S last month a great number of people expressed disappointment at how underwhelmed they were with the introduction. Most of them missed the point. One of the most important announcement was perceived as just a gimmick. I am of course talking of Siri. What a great number of people fail to see if how important Siri, and services like it, are going to be to the future of consumer electronics. Of course at the moment Siri is limited, both geographically (a great number of Siri functions only work in the US at the moment) and in general functionality. When Google introduced their search engine more than a decade ago, it too was far from perfect. But these sort of systems get better the more people use them. It is safe to assume that Siri will continue to improve and go well beyond what it is capable of today. Some of the effects of a Siri-like system are obvious, others are not. Take for example "search". At the moment you enter your search string in the google box and you get your results presented with the targeted ads that allow Google to earn a living. But what happens if you use Siri to perform that search ? Suddenly you get your results as Siri wants you to see them. Gone are the ads, and gone is Google's excuse for charging for their ads. And when you consider that, by their own admission, 2/3 of mobile searches on Google come from the iPhone, you start to see the not-so-obvious effect Siri can have on Google.
So what of Siri and TV ? Imagine sitting in front of your TV and instead of fiddling with a remote you simply say "play the most recent episode of The Walking Dead". Or you tell your TV to "record every episode of The Simpsons", not to mention "volume up" or "channel down" and "pause movie". Of course the question remains: what will you use to speak these commands into. An iPhone, an iPod, some sort of remote microphone ? Whatever it is, I am certain it will look cool and will be fashioned from either brushed aluminum or some other material Jonathan Ive will conceive of for us. Somewhere inside Apple someone is working on those items right now and when the products get announced one day we will once again look at each other and say "This is going to change EVERYTHING !"