TV is broken. We know this. We’ve known it for years. There are too many channels with too much crap. Browsing through the program guide consists of paging through 500 channels you never watch to get to the 20 sprinkled throughout that you do watch—the bundled business model of cable TV means that you can’t just pay for the channels you actually watch. The TV network is still not connected to other networks in any meaningful way (except when my phone rings and the caller ID shows up on my TV—at least Verizon got that one right). And the software that lets us interact and control our TVs is horribly designed. As Apple CEO Tim Cook told NBC last December:
When I go into my living room and turn on the TV, I feel like I have gone backwards in time by 20 to 30 years.
A lot of us feel the same way. We’ve been waiting for Apple to fix it. And waiting, and waiting, and waiting. But Apple doesn’t seem to be doing much about it, and may even be backing off its plans to attack the TV market directly.
Or maybe it will just keep whittling away at the media industry’s resolve through its current, and less controversial, incarnation of Apple TV—the $99 set-top box that brings movies and TV shows from the internet to your big-screen TV in the living room. At least the user interface is leaps and bounds better than the same old electronic program guide we’ve been stuck with on cable for the past 30 years.
When you combine the on-demand options of Apple TV with a subscription from Netflix or Hulu (available as apps within the same interface), there’s plenty to watch. All that’s missing is live sports and events like the Oscars, and some first-run TV shows. But if those were available a la carte or as subscriptions, it is not too hard to imagine cobbling together your own package of programming. Start with a Netflix subscription, add HBO Go, a few for your favorite sports, round it out with on-demand movie rentals, and you’d be all set. We are not there yet, but the world is moving in this direction.
Yet here’s the rub: Even if Apple succeeds in lining up all of the necessary content deals with media companies and comes out with a fully realized TV tomorrow, that would only be a first step. Fixing the user interface and making broadcast-quality video available over the internet is not reinventing TV. All that does is shift the distribution of content from cable and satellite networks to the internet. Shifting distribution is half the battle. Once you click play, it’s still the same experience.
In order to truly reinvent TV, you need to change both how video is created and consumed. Obviously, there is tons of experimentation on this front on YouTube and elsewhere on the web. But most of the innovations are in format and style.
All of that changes once your TV becomes a computer that can run apps. If you launch Apple TV today, it is pretty clear this is how Apple sees the world. You are not presented with a program guide. You are presented with a screen full of featured movies and content apps—Netflix, Hulu, MLB.com, YouTube.
Yet the apps on Apple TV today are all distribution apps. They mostly repackage video content from the internet and present it on your TV. But there is no reason why these TV apps couldn’t be more like the apps on your iPad, and take advantage of the computing power and connectivity of Apple TV. There is no reason why Apple couldn’t open up that screen to all sorts of TV apps that work in sync with iPads and iPhones in ways we can only begin to envision today.
What if a TV program was more than just a video that you passively watched? What if developers or content producers could insert code into video in compelling ways that fundamentally changed the experience of watching TV?
Yes, the history of interactive TV is a long list of failed experiments. But timing is everything. When I watch video on my iPad, I don’t want to just lean back and watch. I want to lean back and touch.
The internet is so captivating precisely because it is a two-way medium. TV would certainly be very different if it was two-way also instead of remaining a one-way, broadcast medium. Already you see hints of this when people use the internet as a back channel to communicate about what is happening on TV—Twitter and the Oscars or the Superbowl are perfect examples.
I am confident that in the near future we are going to see many apps that layer data onto video in captivating ways. Apple can help usher in these apps and truly reinvent TV by further opening up its AirPlay and other SDKs to developers—for instance, it could allow developers to build apps that throw video up on the big screen while keeping information and control elements on the second iPad or iPhone screens. Just as there are apps built specifically for the iPad, there could be a host of TV apps built specifically for Apple TV, both split-screen apps and dedicated apps.
The writing is on the wall. This is going to happen with or without Apple. If Apple doesn’t make it happen soon, a startup will.
It will start as software, and will look like an app. It will make the new TV experience work on a tablet first. But that may be enough to get the ball rolling. After all, the iPad today is a precursor of what TV will become tomorrow.
And if Apple TV (or Google TV or Xbox) doesn’t become a platform for these types of apps, there is always the internet itself. It’s an open platform, and every page doesn’t have to look like a garish newspaper layout. The best-designed sites already look more and more like beautiful magazines. One day, they will start to look more like TV, except they will maintain all the two-way interactivity of the web.