The new Jobs biography drops tantalizing hints about the future of Apple TV. What would such a device look like? What would it do?
In his new biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson writes that Jobs told him, "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." Not the Apple TV we know today, but something that'll bring us the television future we have all imagined will come, one in which every television show or movie ever made is a click away, and we never have to think about cable boxes, DVR's, shiny disks, or online streaming services. You sit on your couch and the program you want appears with a minimum of planning.
Making this idea reality seems impossible for now, even for Apple. What could Jobs have had in mind? Well, let's look at what Apple has done with the iPhone and its other technologies, and extrapolate those improvements to the TV. But first, let's look at what are TV's problems that need solving.
Currently, the cable providers are the gatekeepers to most of the content viewers want. They've created deals with content producers that are Byzantine, high-money, and often exclusive. DVR's such as TiVo allow cable content to be time-shifted, and are a step in the right direction, but they leave much to be desired. You need to program them before your show airs, their interfaces are universally reviled, and if, say, breaking news pushes the air time of your show back, the DVR may well cut the ending off and leave you out of luck. Online streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Apple's own iTunes cut a clearer path to the future, but they have fragmented and disappointingly incomplete libraries, especially when it comes to new content.
The challenge is huge. But Apple today is among the biggest companies in the world. It has the best designers and strategists, over $80 billion in reserve, and a proven track record of successfully negotiating with content companies. It can afford to attack this problem from all directions and use the best elements from every solution in assembling the final product.
What might it do? Imagine a sleek glossy display that looks vaguely like Apple's Cinema Display, but is impossibly thin and comes in three sizes: 85 inch, 60 inch, and 37 inch. The actual screens are technologically state-of-the-art in every way. It's got all the internals of the current Apple TV, which means it can stream content from your computer, from Netflix, or from iTunes. To this Apple has added support for Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus, and every other significant provider of online video. It's added a universal search function that can check each service for the show you've requested, so that all you need do is type (or speak!) the name, and the show, if available, plays.
Now imagine that Apple TV is not just a product, but a subscription service. Say it costs $25 per month, plus à la carte charges for premium content. Apple can go to Amazon, Netflix, and the others, and say: forget making customers sign up for your service directly -- let us show them your content, and you'll get a cut. The cash is the carrot, and the stick is the promise of avoiding the oblivion that Apple just barely saved the music industry from.
But what about the huge majority of content that's still available only through cable? Assume that the new Apple TV can work in cable-free or cable modes. For the latter, it has a built-in cable box and DVR. Suppose, again, that Apple's replaced all the native user interfaces of all those contraptions with its elegant, innovative new approach. And suppose they've leveraged their data centers to understand, in real time, when and what channel each show is on for every cable provider in the country. Now you never have to worry about channels again: just know what show you want, and your Apple TV will tell you when it's on, and offer to record it for you. But suppose the actual recording gets moved into the cloud -- recent legal decisions suggest that may be possible. Now Apple can approach the cable companies with a different request: Why not let us show your customers DVRed content even if they didn't think to "record" it before it "aired"? The show's already in the cloud, requiring the viewer to request watching it before the air date becomes just an arbitrary hurdle for paying customers.
Concurrently, Apple would negotiate with the cable companies for non-cable subscriber Apple TV users. "You're currently not getting any money from these people," the line would go. "Why not let us show them some of your content, and you'll be getting a cut of the money they're paying to Apple." True, the cable providers have a vested interest in resisting these offers. But they must see that the future is not on their side, not to mention that Apple is also negotiating with the online content providers, individual television stations, and ultimately with the content producers.
And that's ultimately where this ends up. In the age where you could charge different prices for different modes of distribution, it made sense that a new movie would be available to rent at Blockbuster on a particular date, but not available on TV until months or years later. But with today's technology, content providers need only be concerned with one thing: for any given date, how much is one viewing of my program worth? The rest is implementation details, and they may well be eager for Apple's expertise in solving those. And so we end up with Apple playing the parties off each other: the content providers, the cable companies and stations, and the streaming services. Each has a hand that's ever getting weaker as more and more customers eschew traditional television service, and as the future comes into focus. Next year may not be the year it happens, and Apple may not be the company to do it, but I'd say the odds are better than even that it will happen.