No One Can Make the Perfect TV, Not Even Apple
“I finally cracked it.” That right there is the most famous Steve Jobs quote nobody knows what to do with. Four words that launched a thousand ships, each one trying to understand what Jobs discovered about the future of TV.
This week, the world is about to get the first inklings of what he might have meant. You’ve no doubt heard that Apple’s supposedly going to launch a hugely revamped Apple TV, designed to be The One True Set-Top Box. If the rumors are to be believed, this device has been delayed over and over, morphing and changing along the way. But with its (supposedly) $149 set-top box, Apple is (supposedly) about to upend the way we think about how we watch TV.
It shouldn’t even be that hard to do. What buyers want is pretty simple, and Apple’s in a position to solve so many of the problems that have always plagued the TV industry. But it’s not technology that’s the problem, and (as Apple has reportedly discovered) Siri can’t solve everything.
The perfect Apple TV—let’s call it The One True Set-Top Box—is a pretty easy thing to imagine. And we probably won’t get it anytime soon.
But we can dream, right? Let’s do that.
Turn On, Tune In
For decades, when we’ve turned on the TV, here’s what we’ve seen: TV. Not a homescreen, not a page full of apps. That’s the second interface; the first one is the stuff we’re watching.
“One immutable part of the human experience,” says Jim Nail, a principal analyst at Forrester Research, “is that as long as we all have to work 40, 50, 60 hours a week, we’re going to come home at night and just want to veg out.” The real potential for set-top boxes, he says, is to solve channel-flipping—to know what you want to watch before you do.
At this point, Netflix has an incredible amount of information about what I watch and when I watch it. Right now, it uses that to pick original shows people will like, and to serve you that unending scroll of ever-more-opaque categories like “Gritty Suspenseful Revenge Westerns.” Why can’t it use that data to just pick something, and put it on as soon as I launch Netflix? If I don’t want to watch it, whatever, that’s one extra click. But most of the time, I don’t want to spend an hour trapped in Netflix Paralysis—I just want to watch something I don’t morbidly loathe. Surely Netflix can do that.
Or maybe it’s not Netflix. Maybe it’s YouTube—after all, that “just press play” mentality has already taken over the video giant. That’s another thing: It no longer matters where content comes from, and the sooner these companies shed themselves of the belief that 22-minute sitcoms are somehow meaningfully different than three-minute shorts or six-second Vines, the better. These boxes should serve up the right thing for right now, no matter what it is or where it comes from.
Apple, or anyone else, does that by making the Internet as simple as TV. And here Apple actually has an advantage: If it can combine a decade’s worth of iTunes data with everything else it knows about me from my other devices, down to which app I’m likely to use at any given time, it could have more than enough data to figure out what I might want to watch. Even without cable deals (which The One True Set-Top Box also needs), the Apple TV could properly replicate the experience of flopping down on the couch, turning on the TV, and watching what’s on. There are no other steps. The show is the interface.
In the ideal world, all your various sources would combine their data into an algorithmically perfect understanding of what you want to watch, and then just show it to you. This is, of course, never going to happen. “Netflix is incredibly tight with their data,” Nail says. “They don’t want to give their data to anybody. They know the value of it.” The same goes for all its competitors. “Failing that,” Nail continues, “I think the next thing that people need is some way to even find and corral all of the content that is available to them.”
In fewer words, they need universal search.
Universal search exists for one reason: because sometimes it’s 2am and I want to watch the History Channel’s documentary about the Titanic. I can’t expect my box to know that. But I can expect it to make it ridiculously easy to find it. I don’t want to watch the History Channel’s story about the Titanic…on Hulu. Or through Comcast TV Everywhere with my cable login on my local Wi-Fi network. I don’t care about any of that, and neither should anyone. I just want to watch it.
Here, there’s actually been some progress. Roku’s search is excellent, Amazon’s is improving, and universal search through Siri will apparently be a core feature of the new TV. Nail points out that the TiVo Roamio actually does this particularly well. “One of my favorite shows is Castle,” he says. “And it says ‘great, it’s on whatever night it’s on ABC, and you have a cable subscription—and it’s also on Amazon Prime for $1.99.’ That’s a pretty compelling experience.”
Here’s the thing about universal search, though: It has to be universal.
The Internet’s TV Guide
Everyone’s suddenly in the business of making stuff. Sometimes they call it “TV shows,” sometimes it’s “original video content,” but what it means is there’s no single place to get everything you want to watch. The best thing about the cable bundle (man, that felt weird to type) is that it’s managed in a single place. You have one password, one bill, one credit card for everything. Renting a movie doesn’t require a new account or a third PIN number you have to remember. It just…works. In cable’s case, it works poorly, but it works.
Now, you can’t watch everything in this “Golden Age of TV” without signing up for Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Crackle, HBO Now, Showtime Anytime, and 10 other things I’m forgetting. “So there’s all these different sources of what is really the most compelling content out there,” Nail says. It’s all but impossible for any one provider to sign them all up, he says, “because the content providers know the value of that. So trying to negotiate any reasonable licensing fee for that is virtually impossible.”
This splintering is only becoming more pronounced, too. YouTubers are the new movie stars, Yahoo is streaming an NFL game this year, and great original content is coming from absolutely every corner of the Internet. “There’s YouTube, and Facebook Video, and all the other online properties that are our video sources of the future,” says Brian Blau, an analyst at research firm Gartner. The question, he says, is the user experience: “Will people even notice that they move away from cable to the Internet? Because maybe the interface will bury that.”
The One True Set-Top Box will have everything. Everything. And it will make the interface so consistent and fluid that it won’t matter where something is hosted, it will just serve it up for you upon request. “I think the consumer has always been ready for that,” Nail says. “I don’t think anybody watches a show just because it’s on ABC.”
The problem is, ABC is hell-bent on making sure you know you’re watching ABC. Universal search means everything is treated the same and content becomes a commodity—great for customers, terrible for big corporations. “That is exactly why Google TV died,” Nail says, “and that is exactly what the traditional broadcasters will fight to the death to prevent.”
In a way, the companies best suited to creating The One True Set-Top Box are the cable companies, and the few outsiders that have infiltrated the industry. TiVo has been replacing cable boxes for years, and the Roamio is great. Theoretically Scientific Atlanta, Motorola, and the other names on the hideous gray boxes under your TV could follow suit. And Comcast, Time Warner, and Verizon already have the content—but they don’t have the technology, or the incentive to break up the system that’s worked so well for so long.
Okay, so the great unbundling of watchable content isn’t coming anytime soon, if ever. So what else can a great set-top box offer? Actually, quite a lot.
More and More and More
You have to work pretty hard to earn a spot in our home theater stacks. Soon, a good set-top box will also be the hub for our smart home devices, and hell, maybe it’ll be a router and a virtual assistant too. It should definitely play games. And, when we ask for it, it should display other information and content related to what we’re watching. Think about the way the Xbox displays your fantasy football team while you watch the real-life game, and think about how the same idea could apply to everything from “who is this person who just died on The Walking Dead?” to “Wait, what question did Megyn Kelly ask again?” Any smart set-top box maker will know what I’m watching, and they’ll do something with that information both now and later.
Here, too, Apple seems to be on the right track: The new Apple TV is going to be gaming-focused from the beginning. But it’s also the primary conduit for HomeKit, and Siri could easily be used for much more than searching for Julia Roberts movies.
For now, it’s the “something more” that will define the Apple TV. How well it sells will depend on how well it does the things other than TV shows and movies. But someday, maybe, we might get something better. “In the last year I’ve seen more movement than I ever expected in the business,” Nail says. A lot of it has to do with programatic advertising, meaning cable companies can target their ads more specifically, so they don’t have to just accumulate huge numbers in an attempt to woo advertisers. Selling the right ad to the right people is even more lucrative.
Not all hope is lost. So let me end with a plea to these companies, for whenever they figure it all out.
As you add more functionality, more power, more bang for my $149, please remember the most essential thing: that what we want when we turn on the TV isn’t a homescreen, or an app drawer, or even a blinking microphone icon waiting for our input. Those are great things! But they’re things we can find when we need them. What the One True Set-Top Box will find for me is something to watch. And then something after that.
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