If Apple Doesn’t Reinvent TV, A Startup Will

TV glassesTV 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.

program guide

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.

66 thoughts on “If Apple Doesn’t Reinvent TV, A Startup Will

  1. The article does not touch the efforts of Google TV. I agree for the least two years there had been no bog progress. But the recent update has been brought in lots of good features. Specifically Prime time which is essentially a quick guide which deportees out movies, drama, sports, TV shows etc. Still we have a long way to go until a splitting can be found for content. I have a Vizio Co Star and with the recent Google TV update, out is performing extremely well

    • I have already broken away from cable TV offering and use Apple iTV to stream shows from many sources such as Neflix, Hulu plus, iTunes, etc. I even stream shows from Internet downloads from my computer. The results is that I only pay for the show I want to watch instead of throwing money at what cable is offering for a load of money. The future of TV is already here and will only get better and cheaper with time.

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  3. No mention of Xbox and Smartglass? Really? Microsoft is already doing this using the Xbox and devices you already have. And it works well.

  4. I agree there is a lot of crap on TV these days, but surely such volition caused by tailored content will remove all serendipity. Think how much you have learned and how many things you have been become interested in when you flicked on some programme without really knowing what it was. People are becoming too specialsed and only interested in what they are already interested in, leaving no scope for personal development. The age of the internet should broaden our horizons not narrow them. In the UK I am very thankful that the BBC has a remit that forces it to show content that would generally be considered boring because it only takes a few minutes of watching it to realise that it’s not.

    • Serendipity is good, but I’d rather have a good recommendation engine than have to slog through the 500-channel program guide. I’d subscribe to a BBC TV app. Each channel/app can bring its own serendipity. I just want to be able to pick my own channels.

      • What about those people who don’t choose the BBC app, or even for argument’s sake, something less pluralistic such as the Discovery app? These people will seldom come across anything that they don’t see themselves as interested in. This would lead to an awful kind of cognitive dissonance that is counter the spirit of a diverse media

  5. Writer must own major stock in Apple. Apple I s a fad which will be history within 3 to 5 years!!

  6. The issue is the content providers won’t let this happen, they force companies to bundle stations no one wants.

  7. The way that we view videos and movies and TV is already fragmented out there and it’s not coming back to one single method of watching content.

    There will be innovations here and there but there will be no central coordinating method.

    I like the diversity that exists based on the devices that we own.

  8. I don’t even want to play Xbox because the TV seems like such an archaic device to me. I wish I could hook my Xbox up to my iMac and play in part of the screen while Tweetbot ran on the right. I am not into the second screen experience when I am watching TV Shows. I am not going to hold my iPad up for an augmented reality trick. I don’t like it during movies either. I like to be taken away into the movie when I watch it and anything besides that is a distraction.

  9. I own an Apple TV. It’s an iMac. Got rid of my TV. Got rid of my cable sub. Works great. Looks great.

    Apple might make a TV but, in fact, it will be a computer in sheep’s clothing. Like the iMac. Apple makes computers, but it’s learned it is not enough to disguise the computer or even to make it damn pretty: Apple knows it also needs a firehose of highly appealing content. Content that’s relatively cheap and relatively exclusive. No buck a tune, no iPod. No buck an app, no iPhone. And no buck a show, no iTube.

  10. Subscription or purchase of whole series, mini-series and episodes are the way to go. To watch on your TV. I would pay for a service that lets download you download and watch a whole series without interruption – and I don’t want to multitask while I watch a movie.

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  12. It is interesting to note, that way back when Apple re-invited the music business, Apple was much smaller and the iPod (origInally) was Apple only – and Apple may have had 5% of the world wide market (probably slightly higher in North America, Japan & France).

    The ironic part is that the music industry seems to hate Apple, because Apple basically saved the music industry from itself (well mostly – the music industry is still very greedy, narcissistic and masochistic self destructive dictatorship of money).

    Now Apple is a mega dominant, super profitable world wide corporation that builds great devices and pays attention to the details. Basically they go against everything every expert says and they often come out on top. Apple is not perfect and neither are their products, however they tend to work well and are powerful yet elegant – or even simplistic.

    Just like hammers – are simple and often powerful (but maybe not elegant?). Apple makes tools, devices, gadgets and they own the whole (or most) of the experience, so they can give people what they want, before said people know what they want.

    And now Google, Microsoft and everyone else is getting more into hardware and the whole experience – because when you design by committee you can only really make junk – functional – ugly – probably works ‘OK’ junk (or sometimes it ugly and non functional).

    Yet because Apple is so big and dominant, most business and industries fear what Apple can do … and also because they are a bunch of greedy, narcissistic bastwitches they get upset, because Apple takes a 30% cut. So maybe no TV for Apple, because Apple is already too successful? The current Apple TV is not all that bad – its pretty good in most ways – tiny, efficient, plays 1080p, gets Netflix and iTunes and much, much more… and Plex aint bad either -for certain things.

  13. Google subscription codes were found in Youtube content. Google’s gearing up for the transition. I think Apple are way behind on the game. Unless they can broker some kind of deal, It’ll be Google

  14. TV is a passive activity. You sit in front of a screen and get washed by images. If you want to interact, you go to the internet. I predict that popular future TV will not be an infinite number of programs to choose from, but quite the contrary, single channels where all content is rather similar, cleverly designed to cater to the needs of particular type of viewers that stick all day to their favorite brand. Less is more.

  15. If some other company wants to take a stab at reinventing TV rather than letting Apple doing it, I say have at it. I guarantee you they won’t succeed. I feel it’s the totally wrong approach for Apple to always be the one to “invent and define” brand new categories, while a slew of other companies then jump in after the fact and ape all the benefits. That has to stop, and Apple is stupid to allow it to continue. For that reason, I feel Apple should forget about reinventing the TV for now. Should forget about Wall Street an forget about any “hot new products” for now. And should just concentrate on milking all they can from their existing products like the iPhone and iPad (there’s still plenty of expansion opportunities for those items around the world). And once those products has been milked for all their worth, only then should Apple invent and release some brand new product that they control. And then milk that product for all it’s worth before moving on again. That is what Apple should do and should stop setting itself up as a company best remembered for “inventing” hot new products – while its competitors then jump in after the fact (like Google and Samsung) and ape all the benefits. Tons of competitor companies have gotten rich off of Apple. Apple has always been the one to do the hard work of “inventing” new products, while its competitors only waited around to “copy” it. That is how it has been. And it has to stop. So if some competitor wants to be like Apple, I say have at it. And I really do hope they succeed and can invent some hot new category so that maybe Apple can get a break for a change and can finally do what other companies have been doing all along – jump in after the fact and rake in all the profits…

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