The 5 Features Apple Must Deliver for TV Success
Apple has proven itself to be great at disrupting a segment of the tech economy with its unique approach to design and software. The next battlefield for Apple is likely to be the HDTV market, but a convoluted tangle of supply issues, content providers and Hollywood egos might be too much even for Cupertino.
As the fall television season kicks into full gear with season premieres, I've been thinking a lot about Apple's mythical Apple HDTV -- not the little hockey puck unit that attaches to any TV, but a real HDTV with a big, bright flat-panel display. As I've noted before, the Gordian Knot of content is a huge problem for Apple. And yet, it's only one part of a whole package of challenges that Apple must face in order to win its way into our living rooms with a real HDTV.
Television has been astoundingly slow to evolve -- it's still broadcast to local markets over the airwaves, and cable and satellite TV has been bundled and packaged for delivery for decades with little change. In some ways, this means TV is ripe for an overhaul, just like the music, book, and mobile phone industries were. But I think TV is a different animal, and to break in, Apple can dink around with the set-top box Apple TV or blow the door down and surprise us all. To do that, though, Apple will have to kick butt and take names in five different areas -- at the same time -- or risk seeing even its most loyal fans shrug their shoulders and move on.
Here's my five:
1. Size Matters
If Apple comes out with anything less than a 42-inch HDTV, it's going to be a huge disappointment to most of the tech crowd and will mean little to most consumers. A 37-inch or 32-inch class TV just isn't going to cut it. Sure, Apple can say they are trying to edge into the kitchen and master bedrooms first, but still, disappointment. Doesn't matter how cool the thing looks. Doesn't matter how much lead Apple designer (and knight) Sir Jonathan Ive gushes over the fine lines and brilliant unibody construction. Even at 42 inches, Apple will have a hard time getting into today's living rooms. Can you imagine any sports fan, say a football fan, giving up a 50-plus inch Samsung, Sony, or Panasonic HDTV in favor of a 42-inch Apple HDTV?
Not going to happen.
Doesn't matter if it's fire engine red. Doesn't matter if it glows pleasantly and senses body heat in the middle of the night and illuminates a path to the bathroom for visiting guests. Doesn't matter if it grills bacon burgers, it won't get into the mass market living room unless it's big.
The point of an HDTV in the living room is a big clear picture. That moves.
2. Navigation Improvements
If Apple is going to bust up the traditional TV world, it has to deliver on the tantalizingly vague promise by the late Steve Jobs who said he had cracked the TV navigation problem. Right now, HDTV navigation sucks. In part, HDTV controls are rudimentary and annoying, but the navigation of content is worse. There's channels you don't want mixed with channels you do want, mixed with pay per view and even ads for movies mixed into the navigation schemes offered up by our cable companies and satellite providers.
Discovering quality content is hard enough on your own system in your own living room -- try visiting a friend who has a different cable provider. You have learn the remote as well as the content navigation.
How can Apple fix this? Siri is one answer, but Siri isn't perfect. She gets confused sometimes, and she needs a live Internet connection to work at all. Besides, who wants to talk to their TV in the middle of the night while the children are sleeping? How about trying to change the channel when there's a barbecue party going on with a lot of background noise?
Siri is not good enough.
How about a simple remote with left-right, up-down navigation, just like every other remote? Not good enough. Does not capture the imagination or make navigation easier. How about a touch screen remote like an iPhone or iPad mini? Not good enough -- takes two hands as well as looking at the touch screen.
In some ways, I hope navigation would be gesture-based -- let cameras sense the position of your hand and navigate accordingly. Use a finger to point, a wave to swipe, a tap or fist to select. It could even be paired with Siri so that basic commands could be recognized in addition to gestures. But all of this is incredibly complicated. How might it shake out when dad is wrestling with the kiddos on the floor while the dog is barking and mom is trying to get the show started?
So maybe a physical device with a visual pointer, along with motion sensitivity -- like a Nintendo Wii controller -- is the way to go. Assuming it worked better than the Wii, you could point at what you want and even use basic gestures to control screens. Like a simple wave left to flick or "swipe" a screen off and move to the right. Add in voice recognition with a mic on the controller (so you don't have to shout) and boom . . . maybe you have something capable of blasting past the current TV navigation tropes, which couple provide a platform for innovation to come. Like the touchscreen keyboard created a new dynamic input method for new apps on smartphones.
If Apple can nail down navigation by making it not only cool and fun, but intuitive and powerful, Apple stands an HDTV chance in the living room.
3. Add Some Apps
There's only one real point in having a SmartTV vs. a plain old HDTV -- apps and appy content. If all I'm going to do is view broadcast television and watch replacement referees freak out NFL fans, I do not need a fancy-pants TV with a glowing Apple logo on it. But if I can extend my iOS app-loving ecosystem through a fast HDTV, OK, now we're talking about benefits that all the other HDTVs can't provide.
At the same time, this ability to get specialized content through apps, maybe even play some games, has to include DVR functionality. If I can't record my favorite television shows and watch them later, the whole Apple HDTV system falls flat. Maybe Apple works out TV show subscriptions to all the popular television series -- and offers them at a compelling price -- that's still a problem because it's a terrible model for content discovery. How do I try out a new TV series? I see the promos for it and then I record an episode or watch a bit during the live broadcast and maybe, just maybe, become a fan. If I have to shell out just to see if I care about Jane on The Mentalist, I'm never going to bother. DVR is a pretty critical feature, and it can either be handled by the navigation element of an Apple HDTV, or through the Apps angle. But it needs to be there, ideally with improvements over today's models.
4. Traditional Live and Broadcast Content
News and sports are huge factors when it comes to the television experience. Even casual sports fans occasionally want to watch football on Sunday or watch the latest news reports on the near-constant wildfires that have been burning through the forests in the western U.S. While DVR is critical, sometimes people want to catch a scheduled broadcast of The Voice or American Idol. That means broadcast TV, either over the air or via cable or satellite. Over-the-air broadcasts are fairly easy -- if you live within range of a broadcast station in a major metro area, you can get HDTV of the major networks free with an antenna. Cable channels, like the Discovery Channel, are tougher because they require licensing agreements and consumers have to subscribe to them. Which means Apple has to finesse its way into the world of TV executives, who are likely pretty darn shy of Apple. In fact, anything new or different means a fractured viewership and a new way of selling advertising and services, and whenever an industry changes, there's risk to the old school business models.
At the very least, Apple could provide an HDTV that offers up traditional connectivity to broadcast television -- in some ways, this is how it works with the current little puck Apple TV: We get Apple-oriented content but then can physically switch the HDTV over to our cable or satellite provider by changing the input. The backdoor method would satisfy our broadcast needs while simultaneously giving Apple the chance to mesmerize us with its own version of new living room content.
5. Hit the Price Point
Price is always a problem, and Apple has mastered two critical abilities: 1) provide a high quality product that justifies the cost of acquisition, and 2) manage the supply chain in order to drive down the manufacturing costs. In order for Apple to penetrate the living room, the company will have to enter a wildly competitive market that currently delivers pretty sweet HDTVs at reasonable prices -- with features and connectivity requirements that are easy for most consumers to understand.
I'm not sure that Apple is up to the task. Why? An HDTV is not the same as a mobile device. It's not a laptop and it's not a tablet and it's not a smartphone. These are all items that need replacing in 3-4 years. HDTVs tend to last at least twice that, if not longer. Buying a new HDTV to replace the one in your living room is like buying a new clothes washer and dryer -- it had better break first or there must be some serious improvements that you need. Right now, like most washing machines, most HDTVs tend to deliver the results that consumers expect. An iPad meets a new sort of need -- it didn't replace a need, and even when it replaced a laptop, it could still replace an aging laptop.
From what I can tell, the internal decision-making process for buying an HDTV is far different than the sorts of products that Apple has been able to sell so far. Desire is not enough because the justification for the result is too hard to solve. When people decide to buy an iPad, they can lie to themselves about how handy it will be, how more connected they'll be to friends, how they'll pay bills on it and be more in tune with their finances, about how more responsive they'll be at work. You can't kid yourself when it comes to buying an HDTV -- at least not now, in today's incarnations.
So price is critical. If Apple comes out with an awesome set that's priced too high, people will be disappointed as well as have to write it out of their minds. Now, Apple, it turns out, is masterful at marketing, and the company might be able to convince us that some new content deal -- a way of buying television shows a la carte or via a new subscription method -- is actually more cost-effective than the old way, well then, there's some wiggle room here.
All-in-all, if Apple can nail down these five features, the company has a chance to blow our minds and disrupt yet another not-so-modern industry.
It's just ... damn. There's a heckuva lot Apple has to get right, and every time I work my way through the issues, the only Apple HDTV solutions I see in the near future remain wrapped up in a small black set-top box.