Apple TV Set: A Perfect TV?

Can Steve Jobs reinvent the TV set and bring it closer to perfection, just as he helped perfect the tablet computer, the phone and the music player? From the recent revelations in the Steve Jobs' biography and articles in the Wall Street Journal, as well as leaks from suppliers in Japan and Australia, the rumor mill is pounding the drums. Below are my own speculations about what the Apple TV set will be like, based on taking seriously Steve Jobs' obsession with perfection.

Full disclosure: I have a personal interest in the outcome. Back in the summer of 2010, I placed a $1 bet  that Apple would announce a TV set during Mac World of Jan. 2012.

The Back Story

On July 24, 2010, I struck up an animated debate with classmates in a technology strategy course at Berkeley by posing the question, "When will Apple finally release a real TV?" Here's what I initially wrote:
When will Apple finally launch a real TV? By that I mean an actual TV set, not a set top box. This is the one irresistible question I had...

Apple of course already sells Cinema display with screens up to 30" and iMacs with screens up to 27". Samsung makes the LCDs, if I recall correctly. Apple also sells the Apple TV set top box for streaming video and music. They have a remote control for Front Row, their media center software. They have a huge installed base of iPhones and iTouches and iPads that could be pushed a remote control app as part of the core OS. Why not roll it all up together and make an integrated TV? Does selling a TV solve any of the problems that have limited the success of the Apple TV set top box, which Steve Jobs calls a "hobby"?

What features would the TV set include? How would it integrate within the Apple ecosystem? Could Apple leverage its iOS without a touch screen on the actual TV? Would remote control navigation be acceptable? How should Apple price a TV set to gain widespread acceptance? Is there a magic price point, and at what premium to commodity TV sets?
Our debate drew more comments than any other class discussion. Ultimately I emailed a transcript of the discussions to Steve Jobs himself on Sept. 24, 2010. (I received no response back, in case you were wondering.)

Naturally, the fiercest detractor against my argument works for Google. More about that later. Also, a high level executive at Facebook replied, "I fail to see how any of this leads to Apple making an actual TV. I just don't see the need... You are wrong."

Predictions for the Apple TV Set

Preliminaries out of the way, what will the Apple TV, or iTV, be like? The supplier news suggests three screen sizes, including 32" and 55", as well as an intermediate size, most likely 42" or 46". It will run a version of iOS and support voice control using Siri from Apple devices including the iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad. It may include DVR functionality. Chances are that the interface will look similar to the current Apple TV set top box. These are all mere features, and don't yet get to the core of what made Steve Jobs' greatest hits so great: perfectionism

After all, Google TV could copy any of the list of features. In fact, based on what we saw with Android, they're likely to rapidly copy all of Apple's features and win the spec war. And that won't be enough, because consumers don't care about the specs, as a hilarious YouTube video pointed out. 

Rather, they care about the sense of design perfection. "It just works," as people like to say about Apple products. But how will the Apple TV set just work? 

Here's what I predicted in an email dated Sept. 17, 2010:
And I think we all recognize that set top boxes suck. Just because viewers are used to having 5 remote controls and a tangle of interconnects doesn't make it a good solution.
There's no reason why there can't be a single display panel with a power cord and a wired or wireless network connection. It can transmit audio channels wirelessly and people can buy powered speakers.
If Apple bundles it all together with a content delivery deal with Comcast or ATT it would certainly be a radical rethinking of the TV.
I also offered some longer term predictions on July 27 that year:
And eventually the future holds:
  • A camera on every TV set  
  • Video calls and conferencing from the TV 
  • Interactive games using TV cameras 
  • Audience participation in televised events via the cameras 
  • Motion sensing technology for games and interactivity 
  • TVs being replaced by computers, effectively 
  • Set top boxes fighting to stay relevant as the TV-computer subsumes their functionality
  • All content delivered on demand (sorry, TiVo)
More recently, on October 25 of 2011, around the launch of the iPhone 4S, I wrote:
With Siri as the interface, a user can simply say, "Watch Delhi Belly", and who cares where it came from, it will just play. If the user has access to the title through a monthly subscription, it will start instantly. If not, a payment screen will appear and the user will confirm. If it's on YouTube or Netflix or Comcast, it's all fine -- as long as Apple can avoid getting blocked the way Google's failed TV did -- it will play in the same way, with the same seamless experience. People might not like the expense of having multiple sources behind the scenes; they'll love the convenience. And Apple will gain ground against Netflix and Unbox.
It will be marketed as Steve Jobs' creation, the product he had secretly worked on for years, the achievement of his final vision, a "hobby" that finally became a product. And even if it's not as big a success as the iPad, it will still do well enough to create a market that previously did not exist.
My Google friend didn't like the negative comments about Google's foray into television, or the suggestion that content may cost money or be less available.

In another email from the same day, titled "and one more thing about the Apple TV set", I added
And one more thing: the TV has no video inputs or outputs. The remote control has no number keys and no input selector. And as if that's not bad enough, the TV has no audio outputs either.   
Sounds like a terrible product... right?
Here's what it does have. Its connections consist of a power cord and an optional network cable. All video content comes in from the network connection or wireless. The TV includes speakers and a camera for video conferencing and interactive games.
The interface is controlled by a tiny, almost button-less remote and by voice with Siri. An iPhone, iPad or iTouch app will also work.
For surround sound, it offers wireless audio. You can buy Apple speakers that consist of a power cord and a dial on the back to set what position the speaker is in (front left, right rear, subwoofer, etc). They're powered speakers that get the signal and volume via wireless. Then it just works.
In response to this, my Google friend almost sounded interested, provided that the television set offered a DVR. Also, he worried about whether it would have enough content, perhaps of the bootlegged variety available on BitTorrent.

Steve Jobs Was a Perfectionist

Regardless of the specifics, the key story of Steve Jobs' life was the story of seeking perfection. He recognized that narrowly defining perfection based on a single product specification was doomed to failure, because a competitor could always beat the spec. 

Instead, Jobs appreciated that perfection has an aesthetic side. Successful perfectionism requires meticulous attention to detail, of the sort that might satisfy the clinical definition of obsessive compulsive disorder. As he told his biographer,
"I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use. It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud." No longer would users have to fiddle with complex remotes for DVD players and cable channels. "It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it."
Perhaps he has done it again, conceiving and creating a carefully perfected product that becomes a category leader.

Regardless, Jobs possessed a rare ability. He could step back from an existing product and see all of the ways in which it failed. He knew when a product sucked, and he would say so bluntly, tactlessly, insensitively.

What's Imperfect About the Current TV Experience

What about the current television experience falls short of perfection? It's easy to start the list:
  • Multiple mismatched and often ugly devices
  • Multiple remote controls bubbling like pox with every imaginable button
  • Tangles of interconnect cables
  • The complexity of changing from one source to another, and bringing all devices into sync
  • Operating remote controls in the dark
  • Finding the channel you want to watch even when you know what show you're looking for
  • Content comes from too many different places, too many devices and input sources
For comparison sake, which of these does the Google TV solve? None, really. That's right. Read through the list again. Consider the remote control for the Google TV. It actually made the situation worse. As if existing remote controls did not already have too many tiny buttons with unclear meanings, the Google TV added an entire alphanumeric keyboard. That's 26 more reasons to reject it.

What could have been Google's greatest contribution was bringing Google search to the television. Easy and fast search could overcome the nuisance of finding content among hundreds of stations and the YouTube catalog. However, it simply doesn't work well on a television set using a minuscule keyboard. 

That's the single biggest reason the initial product was doomed to fail, even before the networks blocked Google TV from accessing their content. It didn't solve any of the biggest shortcomings of our living room television viewing experience.

How Apple Can Overcome the Imperfections

By contrast, voice command using Siri directly addresses the imperfection of remote controls. With voice control, a remote might not be needed at all, if a sensitive enough microphone can be embedded in the television

A closed system, Apple's famous walled garden, does offer potential respite from the onslaught of set top boxes, including the existing Apple TV box. Eliminating all video inputs and outputs, as I proposed, is an extreme move. Ultimately, it's what we will all have, whether with the first generation iTV or a subsequent one. Why? Because it's more perfect.

Likewise, having a separate stereo receiver and remote control and interconnects and speaker cables is something only an audiophile could love. Eliminating all of them in favor of wireless powered speakers would be a more elegant solution. Ultimately, it's what we will all have, whether with the first generation iTV or a subsequent one. Why? Because it's more perfect.

For any audio lovers who are reading, no, sound quality need not suffer. High end audio manufacturers are already heading in the direction of simplicity with products like the THIEL zoet 3.7D, which brings one of Stereophile magazine's highest ranking speakers into the wireless world. It's easy to imagine wireless add-ons that would enable any high-end speaker to work with the iTV, bringing the best possible sound quality.

Regardless whether any of my specific predictions are correct, the iTV, or Apple TV set, will bring the television viewing experience that much closer to perfection. Of that we can all be sure.

Will it be a successful product? Will it escape the Perfection Paradox? What do you think?


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30 comments:

  1. Fantastic article, Jonathan. 2012 will be a big year for IETV. Here was a recent post of mine: http://admajoremblog.blogspot.com/2011/12/tv-keeps-rising-from-dead.html I was expecting much more buzz about Internet-enabled TV this past Black Friday but consumers aren't jumping in en masse.

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  2. Hey, great article, and directly addresses stuff I want to do at home, eventually getting off cable. /Craig

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  3. Thanks for the comments, Steve and Mr Craigslist. It took high definition digital TV many years to become standard even after everyone knew it was coming. Internet enabled TV may be the same. It will get a big boost from Apple.

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  4. Very nice article. I like your ideas about the capabilities of Apple TV and how we can possibly have a wireless entertainment system. Although, Apple definitely can go a lot further than just the TV. I look forward to future articles!

    Kevin Phillips

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  5. Wow, have you ever used Google TV? You realize Google TV at the very least solves the following problems better than any other solution on the market.

    What's surprising is that you're expecting Apple to solve these when Apple TV doesn't even try, who's to say 1 year from now Google TV 3.0 won't be even stronger?

    Multiple remote controls bubbling like pox with every imaginable button
    - Google TV includes a universal remote control. This the reason the remote has so many buttons. In future versions there's no reason not to expect Google to continue to simplify it.

    The complexity of changing from one source to another, and bringing all devices into sync
    - Google TV doesn't require you to change sources. It integrates seamlessly with your live TV experience.

    Finding the channel you want to watch even when you know what show you're looking for
    - Google TV allows you to search by program name or even channel name, no need to use the guide.

    Content comes from too many different places, too many devices and input sources
    - Google TV's Movie and TV show app integrates all these into one place

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  6. Hi, Anonymous. I agree that I've been a bit unfair to Google TV to dramatize the point. I may try to correct that in a future post. I'm a big Google user and fan, and of course my blog is hosted on Blogger using Google Analytics, connected to my gmail, Google+, Google calendar and Google docs.

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  7. Why wouldn't you just correct it in this post? I think a more accurate statement would be that Apple TV will be "Google TV Done Right" and talk about why Google TV has failed to solve those problems well.

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  8. I mean that I may correct the imbalance by writing a future post about Google's brand of perfectionism including its TV strategy. I will probably leave the current post as is and let the commentators weigh in.

    Apologies if you're a Google employee or work on Google TV and feel unfairly maligned. That's not my intention. It was a good effort in many ways, and is overall a move in the right direction.

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  9. How does XBox/Kinnect stack up your set of criteria. Pretty well from what little I've seen of it. Plus, it's a lot cheaper than a new TV.

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  10. The Kinnect is worthy of its own post. Very impressive technology. In the near term, game boxes like the XBox aren't going away. Longer term, increasingly powerful TV computers will pose a threat and force motion-based technology like the Kinnect to morph into an app for Android, iOS or Windows.

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  11. The remote is a hand held device that browse the Internet one controls a TV that plays the audio/video you are looking for, where ever it might be.

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  12. Impressive writing! Yes indeed, the remote made it just worst.

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  13. Thanks for the kind words. Google TV will fix the remote eventually.

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  14. I am glad to found such useful post. I really increased my knowledge after read your post which will be beneficial for me. This is very interesting, the points that you make and the questions that you ask kind of make sense.

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  15. Thanks, Tower. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

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  16. Great article Jonathan, I've enjoyed reading it. It has raised some interesting views. I wonder that maybe the whole idea of "perfectionism", where you say that everything "just works", restricts the users freedom.

    I don't own any apple products myself but I do have friends that own a wide range of their products (iPads, iPhones, iMacs, iBooks, etc.) and I do love the way they all work together with one another. My only concern is that if you were to put your money into getting an "iTV" would the idea of "everything working together" only apply if you had other apple products (which in my personal opinion are fairly over priced). I can't imagine apple allowing an android device to be used as a remote control. And with that, do you not think that it would deter people who already own android products from buying an "iTV".

    I think there will always be a divide between apple users and android users and people who invest their money in either brand will stick to that brand, especially when it comes to an expensive piece of equipment such as a TV.

    What I'm trying to say is, yes, if apple comes out with a TV, then it will be finely polished and working very well with all its other products. But android will see what they've done and adapt it to their current TV OS. But The key aspect that Google has over Apple, is that they have a larger number of manufacturers that can produce TV sets that range in prices that work with an already large number of android devices.

    I just don't think the "iTV" will bring the end to the Google TVs. I am aware that's not what you said would happen in your article, but I would to love to hear your response to my views

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  17. Excellent points about closed vs. open platforms, Carl, and about the interest of other TV manufacturers in having an open alternative. I've written a blog about Google TV that I'll post in the next few days. Hopefully it will address some of the points you've raised.

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  18. Great read! Another point to consider is the interface. I truly believe Apple copies a lot of its ideas from a little known video company out of Japan--Nintendo! I fully expect for the Apple TV (I'm calling it the iPort, as in portal) to use a interface similar to the Nintendo Wii, with various channels or tiles actively on screen at the same time, allowing you to point your iPhone at (similar to the Wii) and select a viewing channel.

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