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May 1, 2015

Why the future of Apple TV isn’t going to be a TV

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I’m in the process of home renovations, which is a grandiose term for taking a big hammer to my fireplace. My fireplace needs knocking out. It is a relic of a bygone era – a time when, you might remember, people used to rent their televisions from a radio shop. The one useful job my stone behemoth of a fireplace provides is as a pedestal for the telly. So, when I came to prepare for the task, I thought it pertinent to move the telly out of the room before running at the fireplace, face painted like William Wallace, wielding a hammer above my head shouting ‘fire doomed’.

Moving the telly wasn’t a simple task. I get my content via cable, so alongside the telly sits a TiVo box and a Bluray player – these had to move too. All seemed fine and then I remembered that there are three other members of the household who quite like their telly, so I couldn’t just leave them to watch me hack at a few metric tonnes of stone – I was going to have to set everything up in another room.

The problem, as I was to find out, was that you can move your telly easily enough, but it needs to get its content from somewhere, and that somewhere is usually a physical socket on the wall. Moving the socket isn’t so easy. I won’t bore you (more than I have already) with the details, but suffice to say a hugely long cable was required to set up a working system in another room. This got me to thinking, why do I need a TiVo box and a Bluray player? They are both clever in their own way, but both do jobs that can be done by machines that don’t gather dust in your lounge.

I’ve noticed of late that the family is consuming more and more content via Netflix and Amazon Prime. I can get both of these services on any of the internet-enabled devices (computers, phones, tablets) in the house. All of which can get the content without the need for a socket.

The clever TiVo box that sits under my telly, costing me more than it should, is primarily focused on recording programmes via its umbilical chord. When you think about it, that’s a very outmoded way of doing things.

The cost of servicing and installing these boxes is considerable. They go wrong from time-to-time and, if you think about it a bit more, they aren’t very environmentally friendly. A lot of the time the boxes sit there guzzling electricity making reassuring clicking noises, but doing little else.

Wouldn’t it make sense for content providers to vacate the lounge and move their delivery point to the internet? In place of a 1 terabyte hard disk for recording shows you could just have an account where you could watch what was included in your plan. Hang on, that sounds an awful lot like Netflix and Amazon Prime!

I read in Walter Isaacson’s biography about Steve Jobs that before he died he was working on the future of TV, something far more ambitious than the current Apple TV.

Lots of observers quickly drew up what this fabled Apple TV might look like: lots of aluminium and a Bauhaus aesthetic. People are already getting excited about paying a premium for a shiny new box to put in their lounge.

Apple iTV

I think that these people are going to be disappointed. How could Apple offer a true innovation over the current crop of ‘smart TVs’? Most likely by offering less.

I believe, that the future of TV isn’t a TV at all. At a minimum, the next-generation of TV should include a high performing, low wattage screen soldered onto a RasberryPi-like device. As long as the device can deliver a good usability experience, an internet connection (wi-fi please/no cables) and support for high definition (4k preferably) then you’ve got yourself all you need.

The innovations needn’t go further than that in the lounge at least. The real innovations will occur in the way content is delivered. Forget broadcast, where content is delivered en masse and you either participate or don’t, and think narrowcast where you pick what you want and it gets delivered immediately to your device – which of course may not be a telly at all. The intelligent house is a misnomer, I think they are going to become more stupid, the real intelligence will happen elsewhere. The house will become just another access point to the content. This is another point where today’s cable and satellite companies models look antiquated. We will laugh in the future at the idea of paying an extra £5 a month to get pictures to a second telly in the house.

I see a future where I have access to content, both new and old. I won’t have to record anything, it will just be available as long as my account covers that piece of content. There will still be broadcast, in the sense that live events and new programmes will be watched by a collective group. Some might be watching a few minutes earlier or later than their neighbours (whatever suits their particular needs), but that sense of a big event will continue.

I think Steve Jobs saw this without having to knock-out his fireplace. The tough job, which is still going on, isn’t creating a bit of hardware with some clever gimmicks. It’s about agreeing deals with content providers and being able to deliver the most holistic and easy-to-use networks for customers to peruse.

So, this weekend I shall be smashing my fireplace and I won’t miss it one little bit. There may not be a place for me to plonk the telly, TiVo, Bluray, CD player and more, but do you know what – I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.

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