The Next Apple TV Shouldn't Be a TV at All
Last week, I said that Apple needed to nail five features in order to make a real Apple HDTV a success -- size, navigation, apps, content, and price. These five elements are critical if Apple wants to produce a newfangled HDTV -- but now I believe that's the wrong approach altogether.
10/04/12 5:00 AM PT
Apple's entire Apple TV "hobby" has been weighing heavily on my mind. Why? There's so much potential for packed-in awesomeness that it tantalizes a guy's neurons, especially as the fall TV season kicks into high gear. And danger. Oh baby, there's a lot of potential for danger. Apple isn't immune to missteps -- nor was it even when Steve Jobs was masterfully in full command. -- and a misstep or hubris around the release of a big, real flat-screen Apple TV could be worse than jumping the shark.
It could alienate many of Apple's most loyal customers.
Why? Size and price. If it's cool but small, that's a disappointment. If it's priced too high, that's worse. I've mentioned this before, but a big screen TV, especially when many people already own them, doesn't justify a replacement. A TV is a not a computer, not a tablet, and not a smartphone. It's a glorified appliance that sure as heck better last 8 years before it's shuffled off to a bedroom, a game room, or the garage.
I Was Mostly Wrong
Last week, I said that Apple needed to nail five features in order to make a real Apple HDTV a success -- size, navigation, apps, content, and price. These five elements are critical if Apple wants to produce a newfangled HDTV -- but now I believe that's the wrong approach altogether. Why? It might be easier for Apple CEO Tim Cook to juggle half a dozen television remote controls while riding a unicycle down a ramp and over a jump that spans a little blue plastic swimming pool filled with TV executive piranhas while a pack of Samsung engineers lobs flaming pumpkins that have been carved into the shape of Jonathan Ive's head.
Sure, it would be a viral sensation on YouTube, and even if Cook made it happen, Apple's street cred could plummet.
The worst thing that Apple could do is "succeed" by creating a TV that is elitist.
An Apple DVR?
Saying this makes me cringe, but Apple needs to make the best DVR ever. Why? The DVR is one of the most useful products delivered by satellite and cable TV providers, but it's also shackled by poor navigation, inflexibility and isolated services. DVRs don't inspire anything in their users because they are primarily just a conduit to TV shows.
And this is why Apple needs to turn the Apple TV into a new -- and unrecognizable -- DVR. The first order of business is to get the marketing message right to let people associate an Apple TV with all the goodness of a DVR without bringing out the association of the unit with that of a commodity toaster oven. Apple can do that. Marketing is Apple's second-best product, always.
Interrupt the Streams
Apple's challenge, then, is to interrupt the traditional TV streams instead of trying to remake the very nature of how people consume television. Getting me to subscribe to my favorite TV shows, even a la carte, will be tough if I can't watch the evening news, see breaking news, or watch the Super Bowl live with millions of other fans at the same time. So replacing free broadcast TV, as well as the major networks delivered through satellite and cable providers, is damn near impossible. There's not only a lot of entrenched money on the line in these businesses, there's content rights, plus consumer habits to break through.
Besides, this idea that home-based Internet is anywhere near able to be a reliable conduit for high-quality TV in America is laughable. As near as I can tell, vast areas of North America don't have the quality Internet pipes needed to make this happen, and when they are available, they're expensive. As it is now, half the time I use my Apple TV or Xbox 360 to cue up a TV show for streaming, the wait is irritating, especially when the system believes it has to communicate with Apple, Microsoft, or Amazon servers to authenticate my very existence. It's a pain in the butt, and it's just not good enough.
So, to get around the content issues, Apple doesn't have to remake the TV industry in how it packages and sells television shows. A far simpler method is to create a mini computer system -- like the Apple TV -- that is easily upgradeable and can accept traditional television input, either through a tuner or via satellite or cable. The benefit? I get all the Apple TV goodness I want, with Apple's navigation and apps and services, right alongside my traditional TV source without a lot of input switching and remote juggling.
Taking this a step further, Apple would be able to provide a wireless conduit to hundreds of millions of iOS devices, potentially putting traditional TV (with commercials) out in people's hands. Now, Dish Network, for example, has its SlingPlayer hardware, but it's limited. It doesn't have the strengths that Apple could bring to consumers.
Turn the HDTV Into a Glorified Monitor
There are several ways this could work. The Apple TV could outright replace the cable boxes/DVRs that cable and satellite companies produce already. This method turns the traditional HDTV into a glorified monitor. It wouldn't matter if a consumer already invested in a sweet Panasonic, Samsung, or Toshiba HDTV -- they could still use it with a new amped-up Apple TV set-top box.
Alternately, an Apple TV could accept the television output from existing cable and satellite boxes and repackage the information on the HDTV screen, adding navigation, DVR, apps, etc. I'm sure there are some technical hurdles here, as well as potential legal issues, but I'm telling you, I'd pay US$10 extra a month to my satellite TV provider if I could get the TV streams and simply avoid using the company's own DVR, navigation system, and freaking channel clutter. I'd be a happier customer; I'd be more profitable for the provider; I'd watch more TV; and I'd likely see more commercials, despite the availability of commercial skip features.
The trick, of course, is making the television industry understand that this sort of move: a) is inevitable, and b) actually extends their reach and value in a time when the next generation of TV watchers is at risk of being lost to YouTube and Facebook anyway.
All in all, the brilliance of an Apple TV puck on steroids is it has the potential to deliver everything all of us TV-loving consumers want, everything we need, as well as things we haven't even imagined.