Cracking the idea of an Apple TV set

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It’s that most depressing time of year for any tech pundit: the time just after Apple’s autumn iOS event. That’s it for new products for the rest of the year; it’s a drought that won’t break until January at the earliest.

It leaves us feeling all edgy and out of sorts and at a loss for what to say in social situations. “So what do you think the new iPhone is going to be like?” is how people normally greet us. It’s not an offensive question, trust me. I could answer that question. The ones that electrify me with blind panic are questions like “Hey, have you met my wife, Angela?”

(Looks kind of familiar. She seems to be smiling at me, as though anticipating recognition. Or is that hairstyle making me think of someone else? Like, one of the correspondents on “60 Minutes.” Leslie Stahl? I really liked that story about the guy with the ultralight plane who taught those baby geese how to migrate. Didn’t that become a movie? Annnnd now Leslie’s jaw is clenched and the person who introduced her to me is staring into his drink.)

Whereas “I think it’ll be just like the iPhone 4, only faster and with a better camera” just trips right off the tongue.

Enter a convenient rumor

Fortunately, we have a savior in the form of newly-credible rumors about an Apple-branded HDTV. For years, it’s been just something that sort of made sense. But it got kicked into the bigs with the publication of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, in which he’s quoted as talking about his desire for an integrated television set. “It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it,” he was quoted as saying.

Surely not since Pierre de Fermat scribbled “I have discovered a truly marvelous proof of this, which this margin is too narrow to contain” next to his favorite mathematical brain baffler has a single line in a book provoked so much heavy thought from so many.

Me? I’m still more than slightly baffled. I’d still be dismissing the Apple HDTV as nothing more than a trial balloon in some Apple lab if not for these words from the man himself. The rest of the book relates several stories that make it pretty clear that whenever Steve said that he’d come up with an idea, it was usually wise to expand that phrase to read “Lots of engineers have been working on many different ideas, and I identified this one idea and this particular approach as Something Important to both Apple and the concept of television; I then waved my fairy wand of Immaculate Resources and Mandate over the whole prospect.”

Which isn’t meant as a swipe against Steve. It’s an indication that this can’t really be chuckled aside as an idle thought.

The Apple TV makes perfect sense. It’s a tiny $99 box that turns any HDTV into an IR-controlled iOS device. It increases the value of everything else you buy from Apple, which is Feature One of any addition to the company’s product line. The media you buy from iTunes gets to play on the big screen and the good speakers. Your iOS and MacOS devices get a huge wireless display; your iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch virtually become console gaming systems.

It’d be wonderful if Apple brought innovation to television simply in the form of licensing. I have 400 cable channels available to me right now but I only actually care about 12 of them. If Apple worked out how to license those channels independently and allowed me to simply subscribe to them a-la-carte via channel-specific iOS apps, that’d be a huge win. We got a hint about that recently during the CBS network’s regular earnings call. CEO Les Moonves revealed that he’d refused to get involved in a proposed Apple plan for streaming network content, balking at an ad revenue split in lieu of an upfront licensing fee.

Siri search would be incredible on a TV. “Play last night’s episode of the Craig Ferguson show,” I would say into my Bluetooth audio-enabled remote. We don’t channel-surf any more. There’s so much content that the role of the cable box is to help us to find things. We don’t know, or care, when something was scheduled to air and syndication has made networks almost irrelevant. “House, M.D.” airs on three different channels…sometimes simultaneously.

And given that the HDTV is the biggest and baddest (in the goodest sense of that word) screen in the house, it’s a focal point for family activity. It’s always in a community room. It’s a perfectly natural hub for iCloud to project information into.

In a day when the Mac Pro’s place in the product line is shaky, an expansion into the household’s most consumer-ey of consumer products seems like a gimme. But the Apple TV can handle all of those things and more. What would an integrated TV provide to the user? Yes, conceptually, a fully integrated design is more elegant. But honestly, you plug an Apple TV into an HDMI port and then you never ever have to deal with it again. Would Apple really be all that offended if it’s HDMI 2 instead of HDMI 1?

Streaming is also problematic because although you can cut the cable company out of the loop for subscription programming, it’s still going to provide the data pipeline for all of your content. The cable company will raise some valid objections (“Tens of millions of people streaming HDTV puts a hellacious load on our network”) and some petulant ones (“Fine, now we’ll cap your monthly bandwidth and make sure any dough we lose through loss of your subscription, we make up in overage fees”) and it seems likely that it’ll all balance out for the user.

And we haven’t even started talking about the problems of carrying enough sizes and enough price points to keep the marketplace happy. Tim Cook hates inventory the same way that Benny Hill hated a securely-fastened nurse’s uniform. Can an Apple HDTV, available in only one or two sizes, be successful? Even if it can, how will Apple convince people to ditch a perfectly-functional flatscreen that’s probably only a few years into its 10-year life cycle?

Do the math

No, I keep rounding back to simple math: $99 Apple TV + $$ HDTV of the user’s choice from anyplace else > $$$$ Apple HDTV.

I try to think of opportunities that an HDTV would deliver to Apple—and to users—that a future Apple TV couldn’t. An integrated FaceTime camera, sure. And that’s a lot of square footage Apple’s hanging on the wall. What sort of AirPort antenna could Apple engineers design if they didn’t have to pack it inside a hotplate-sized base station?

How about a touchscreen? Naw. Apple’s already said that it doesn’t think touchscreens work on big displays (though the company has thrown up smokescreens before, about other concepts). Plus, I’m sure it doesn’t want a huge sheet of glass hanging in the most visible part of the central room of the house to be covered in fingerprints.

I don’t think an Apple HDTV will really be about the hardware, anyway. It’ll be about the software and the content, which are the keys to any Apple product. Siri, iCloud, and most importantly deals to license content in such a way that the user won’t feel like they have to feed coins into the side of the screen every time they want to catch a sitcom, will define any Apple HDTV.

That last one might be the single toughest problem to solve. Talking to network executives isn’t like talking to Siri. Siri is designed for rational, productive conversations in plain, comprehensible language. Meanwhile, I’m sure that someone at NBC is still insisting to some creator’s agent that “Seinfeld” still hasn’t made back its production costs and that there are no profits to share.

[Senior contributor Andy Ihnatko is tech columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, a regular on MacBreak Weekly, the host of The Ihnatko Almanac, and so much more.]

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