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.

Startups, Apply By 1/17 To Get DEMO Mobile Scholarships

We are in the midst of collecting application for DEMO Mobile and a big deadline is coming up. January 17 is the last day startups can apply for a scholarship. As I just wrote on the new DEMO blog, we want to give away lots of them:

My primary goal at DEMO is to pick only the very best products to launch and remove any barriers to making getting them onstage, including price. One of the big misconceptions about DEMO is that it costs an arm and a leg for every startup to participate. But that simply isn’t true. Any startup with less than $500,000 in funding can apply for a full scholarship. If selected to present at DEMO, scholarship winners pay nothing. For DEMO Mobile, the deadline to apply for scholarships is next week on January 17.

If you are a bootstrapped or seed-stage startup that wants to launch a mobile product at DEMO Mobile on April 17 in San Francisco, the time to apply is now. Is your product good enough to make the cut? Find out. It takes only 15 minutes to fill out the form.

Those who make it onstage as one of 20 finalists from hundreds of applications, will get to debut their product in front of an audience of investors, the tech press, and get personal feedback from our growing roster of judges such as Kleiner Perkins general partner Chi-Hua Chien, Runkeeper founder Jason Jacobs, and Google Ventures partner/Android co-founder Rich Miner.

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Lessons From The DEMO Tour: Hardware Is The New Software

DEMO Tour deviceJust before the holidays, we wrapped up the first leg of our DEMO Tour. In partnership with some amazing VC firms—Andreessen Horowitz and Kleiner Perkins in Silicon Valley and First Round Capital in New York City—the DEMO team met with about 30 mobile startups and developers vetted from more than 100 applicants for the Tour alone.

These were private sessions, and were every effective in surfacing early, high-quality candidates for DEMO Mobile in April. (The deadline for scholarships is January 15, so applynow). Partners at each VC firm, including Frank Chen and Ronny Conway at a16z, Chi-Hua Chien and EIR Stephanie Tilenius at Kleiner, and Chris Fralic and Howard Morgan at First Round (pictured below), sat in with us to provide feedback to the presenting companies.

We saw some terrific products targeting areas you would expect to be hotbeds of activity such as mobile media, commerce, communications, enterprise, and health. What surprised me the most, however, was the variety of hardware products. Now, I can’t go into too much details just yet on exactly what these products were (you will have to wait for them to launch or come to DEMO Mobile in April to find out). But they weren’t phones. They were creative applications wrapped in hardware.

Some of these were the types of products you might see on an Indiegogo or Kickstarter campaign. A few were really out there—in a good way. (Try to guess what the product being demoed in the photo above is supposed to do). The engineers and entrepreneurs with hardware products were the kind of people who don’t have the patience to wait for a bigger company to build the hardware they need. So they just did it themselves, and with not much more money than a typical software project would require.

Hardware is the new software. In an era when anyone can be a maker, manufacturing is like server capacity—it is available to every entrepreneur on the planet. If you can imagine it, you can build it. The new devices we saw took advantage of cheap sensors and standard computing parts to collect data from the real world in new ways or to create immersive experiences that blend the physical world with the digital. It was eye-opening, and I can’t wait to see more hardware products that solve real-world problems in astonishing ways.

If you are working on a new mobile device, or custom-built hardware that solves thorny problems, please apply to launch at DEMO Mobile. I am especially excited to find new consumer health devices and mobile enterprise hardware built for specific industries. Of course, software and mobile apps are always welcome as well.
DEMO Tour Fralic Morgan

Introducing DEMO Mobile

If there is one fundamental shift sweeping over the technology industry, it is the current transition to mobile computing. The opportunity is immense. Apple embraced the transition early and was rewarded handsomely for it. Google also sees it. Facebook sees it. Paypal sees it. Even Yahoo sees it. But will the revolution be led from above or come from below?

My bet is on a startup. Chances are the next major technology company to join the ranks of Apple, Google, and Facebook will be a mobile-first company. And chances are that it is just now being born, which is why for my first DEMO event I am focusing on mobile. If you are a founder or product leader with a world-changing mobile product ready to launch next April 17, I encourage you to apply to DEMO Mobile. The application deadline is February 15, 2013. Scholarships are available for startups with $500,000 or less in funding. Those who want to be considered for a scholarship must apply by January 17.

Mobile marks a new era in how products and companies are built. If you are a mobile product person—a founder, designer, or product manager—this conference is for you. If you are an investor looking for the next great mobile startups, they will be onstage at DEMO Mobile. And if you are a product leader at an established company working on a stunning new mobile product, DEMO Mobile is the place to launch.

DEMO Mobile will be my first event as executive producer of DEMO. It will be a little different than most recent DEMOs. This will be a one-day conference on a single topic: mobile. The bar to get in will be higher. Only 25-30 companies will be invited to present onstage, about a third less than at a normal DEMO. And it will take place in a new location, at San Francisco’s Mission Bay Conference Center.

Some things I won’t change. The essence of DEMO will remain: there will be a laser-focus on great products and the people who create them. DEMO is a big show-and-tell. To get into DEMO Mobile you really need to be able to show us something new, and open people’s eyes to the possibilities of the post-PC world. Surprise us or delight us. It’s that simple.

We are looking for big ideas and beautiful design in the selection process: mobile apps for smartphones and tablets that break new ground and address new industries, novel mobile devices, wearable computers, robotics, and even vehicles will be considered. We are defining mobile rather broadly. It includes both hardware and software, and can target both the consumer or the enterprise.

One reason mobile is so exciting is that it brings the transformative power of software into the real world away from our desktops. While I love all the games, social networking, communications, media, and information apps built specifically for mobile, I suspect the biggest impact will be in areas just now coming into their own such as mobile commerce, health, education, transportation, workforce management, productivity, or mobile data. But surprise us. The best products get in.

The great thing about DEMO, besides all the attention your startup will receive from investors and the media, is that it a hard deadline by which you need to have a working product. For many startups and product teams, the deadline is a powerful forcing function of that gets them into the market quicker than they would otherwise. For that reason alone, if you are working on a killer mobile product, you should apply.

Show Me Your Best DEMO

Ever since I left TechCrunch six months ago, people have been asking me, “What’s next?” I’ve been purposefully silent about most of my activities, but today I can share some news. Beginning next month, I will become the new executive producer of DEMO, the original product launch conference.

Yes, I know. I used to compete with DEMO. But it is all good. Competition makes everyone stronger. It is good for events, and it is even better for products. I’ve always enjoyed discovering new technology products and startups, and bringing them to a wider audience. Now I will do everything I can to make DEMO the place where the best product ideas compete for attention.

Today we are witnessing a Cambrian explosion of startups. It’s never been easier or cheaper to launch a technology product. But it’s also never been a noisier or more crowded environment. There is more value than ever in selecting, culling, and showcasing the most promising products and startups. It is very much an editor’s job, which is how I will approach my role at DEMO.

But I will also be approaching it from a product perspective. Over the past few months, I’ve gained a deeper appreciation for what it takes to turn a set of wireframes into living code by rolling up my sleeves at bMuse, a New York City product incubator where I am also now a partner. I will continue to work there on a variety of projects, including my own—more details on that in a future post. DEMO and bMuse are not affiliated. My only point is that building products is very different from writing about them. Both are important (I will also continue to write here and contribute articles at Techonomy), but some things you can only learn by doing yourself.

Under my watch, DEMO will be laser-focused on launching the best products, period. It won’t be about celebrities. It won’t be about tech news. The products are the celebrities as far as I’m concerned. I don’t care if they come from startups or established companies. If you are working on a killer product that will launch next year, I want to see it. Show me your best DEMO and I’ll put you on stage. (I can be reached via email at producer@demo.com or erickschonfeld [at] gmail).

The first event I produce will be next spring, but I will attend DEMO this October to observe. DEMO producer and VentureBeat editor-in-chief Matt Marshall (who first told me about the opening and introduced me to DEMO general manager Neal Silverman a few months ago) has done a great job at introducing some much-needed changes over the past three years. For instance, it is a lot more startup-friendly. There are now 20 slots for early-stage startups who get in for free if they are accepted, as well as other scholarship programs.

But the startup world is changing quickly, and DEMO needs to keep pace. It used to be that the best startups all flowed through the venture capital system. Now other avenues are opening up. There are so many incubators and accelerators (Y Combinator, TechStars, 500 Startups), alternative funding from networks like AngelList, and crowdfunding is also unleashing a whole new wave of products.

I will consider any change that can make DEMO better. Nothing is sacred: format, on-stage sessions, even how applicants are vetted. Great ideas can come from anywhere. I will personally travel around the world to find the best products and startups. If you have ideas for how I can make DEMO the best product launch platform, please send me an email or tell me in comments.

Taking A Different Path

With Path raising north of $30 million yesterday at a reported $250 million valuation, it’s natural that everyone is comparing it to Instagram, which sold just last week for $1 billion to Facebook.

After all, on the surface the two mobile apps start from a similar place: both are primarily used to share photos with friends and followers, both use filters to make crappy phone pics look better, both are mobile-first apps, and both are highly social apps.

It’s easy to compare. In fact, when the Instagram deal was announced, I wondered out loud what it would mean for Path’s valuation:

But as Om Malik detailed in a post yesterday titled “Why Path is no Instagram,” the two services are far from interchangeable. “I find the comparisons with Instagram unfounded and premature,” he writes.

The truth is that Path is not trying to be like Instagram. It is taking its own path, one which may end up being more difficult. But if it makes it through to the other side, it could end up becoming even more valuable than Instagram. Path’s ambition is not to become a killer mobile app. Its ambition is to become a killer mobile social network. It’s a much broader ambition than Instagram’s and much harder to pull off.

Right now, Path only has about one tenth the number of registered users that Instagram does (3 million versus 30 million), and an even smaller fraction of active users. AppData, for instance, estimates Path’s monthly active users at 500,000, compared to 12.6 million for Instagram. (Remember, these are outside estimates, and thus, are surely wrong, but hopefully they are wrong by the same degree for both services and thus give us a sense of the relative popularity of each one. Also, note how all the publicity in the past few days has boosted Path’s numbers).

Not only does Path have much fewer users than Instagram, but its semi-private nature (you are limited to 150 friends) is holding back its reach. I am not as convinced as Om, however, that this is such a bad thing.

When you take a deeper look at Path, it is very different from Instagram. Yes, it uses mobile photo-sharing as its starting point, but there is so much more you can share with your friends, including your thoughts, your location, who else you are with, the songs you are listening to, video clips, and even when you are going to sleep (never used that one). Instagram does one thing incredibly well: mobile-photo sharing. Path is broader and yet more intimate at the same time. It is about sharing your life, but only with those people who are closest to you.

Today, Path is a drop-dead gorgeous mobile app, especially in its current incarnation (Path 2.0). Just like with any social app, it is only as good as the people in your network who are also using the app. And while Path is making progress, the way it is designed actually works against rapid, viral growth.

As I’ve argued in the past, the quasi-private nature of Path is its Achilles Heel. I personally still struggle with the empty-room problem whenever I open the app. The only people I see in there are VCs and bloggers, not my actual close friends.

Om has a similar issue:

. . . the app at present lacks the draw or the engagement I normally experience on Instagram and other apps. I have found that it does so much that I sometimes forget to open the app, even though I intend to. Path still needs to define a singular addictive behavior and that is its challenge (and opportunity.)

I am not so sure about that second part. Yes, Path needs to do one thing well. But one thing does not always mean one feature (sharing photos or location or ideas). The one thing Path needs to do well is to become the means to share your life no matter what you are doing and no matter where you are.

If it wasn’t for the empty-room problem, I would be addicted to Path. But it’s too early in Path’s trajectory to determine where it will land. At least anecdotally, I am noticing the room is filling up, or at least more people are wandering in.

Path used to be completely private, but one of the smartest changes it made was to allow you to selectively share posts with your broader social networks across Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Foursquare. That draws other people into Path and reminds inactive users to go back and check it out (“Hey, something is happening there!”).

However, keeping the network somewhat closed is still the key to making Path distinct from other social networks. The semi-private nature of the network is intended to make people comfortable sharing things they would never share on Twitter or Facebook. If Path is designed properly, people will share things there that they won’t anywhere else. (I haven’t seen too much evidence of this myself, but most of the people I know on Path are over-sharers anyway).

Path’s growth is slower than Instagram’s because it is more restricted by design. Path demands more of its users. You can’t follow someone unless they follow you back. It’s less for lurkers than it is for active sharers. You can’t just be a lurker because there aren’t enough people in your network to make lurking addictive.

You have to actively post and share to your network. It only becomes addictive when you get positive reinforcement, when your friends comment on or like whatever you are sharing—and perhaps share something back in response. Those are the magical moments Path needs to capture.

Until there is a critical mass of your friends posting in the app, there isn’t much reason to open it up. But once it reaches that critical mass, it might become very addictive indeed. And as long as Path keeps growing at a decent pace (albeit its own pace), it will keep moving closer to that tipping point. Can it get there? That is the $250 million bet investors just placed on Path.

Personal Capital’s iPad App Keeps Track Of Your Total Financial Picture (Demo)

Former Intuit and PayPal CEO Bill Harris launched his latest company, Personal Finance, last September. Today, he is launching the Personal Capital iPad app. In the video above, he gives a demo of the app.

Personal Capital is like Mint for your finances. It shows you a picture of all your financial accounts, from banks to brokerages, and helps you get a handle on your total financial portfolio. It takes all of your financial details and boils them up into simple charts displaying your asset allocation across all your accounts. The iPad app is filled with interactive charts that you can swipe and drill down into. It even includes ways to visualize how much your stock options are worth.

“It is more and more clear that most American households financially are out of control,” says Harris. Simply seeing where all your money is across various accounts is the first step to gaining back control. Customers get the data analytics for free, but Harris is betting that a significant portion of them will opt into letting Personal Capital manage some of their money. The company is a registered investment adviser and employs financial advisers who are available by phone or Web. Now, with the iPad app, you can even do Facetime sessions with your adviser.

Since launch, a total of 10,000 people have linked their accounts to Personal Capital, which is now tracking more than $2 billion worth of assets. A small portion of those people have signed up for the paid investment advisory service. Harris is going after affluent Americans who have assets to invest but are below the threshold of most financial advisers or who simply want better data and a digital dashboard for their finances.

The Coolest App At SXSW—Arqball Spin

I just spent five days in Austin at the SXSW Interactive Festival. There were no breakout social apps that took over the conference as in years past (like Twitter, Foursquare, or GroupMe), but there was one app that got almost zero buzz that blew me away. It has nothing to do with proximity-based social networks, photo-sharing, or finding a pedicab to the next SXSW marketing party. No, this is an app that can take real-world objects and turn them into photo-realistic 3D models.

The app is called Arqball Spin (iTunes link), and you can see it in action in the video above. Co-founder Jason Lawrence took my watch, placed it on a platter, then captured the rotating image on his iPhone using the app. In the time it took him to explain the technology—about a minute—he had a full 3D model of my watch that you can pinch, zoom, and rotate. (Check out the 3D model of my watch here, and this one of a spinning egglpant).

Arqball uses “computational photography” to create a 3D model of the rotating object placed on the platter, and then stitches images from different angles on top of it. The result is a digital object that looks real and even catches the light the same way my watch did on that platter. Game developers and animation studios create 3D objects like this all the time, but they don’t do it using their iPhones. That is why this is truly disruptive. It brings 3D modeling to the masses. You don’t need bulky 3D scanners or expensive desktop software, all the rendering happens in the cloud after the data is compressed to a 1MB file, and what you end up with is a 3D artifact called a “spin.”

The first application for Arqball Spin isn’t even for gaming or animation. It’s for commerce. Imagine every Etsy and eBay seller showing off their goods in 3D. The virtual item can be embedded on any site via an Arqball player. And it’s all HTML5—no Flash (so it works in iPad and iPhone browsers). This could be especially useful for luxury and highly-crafted items where the design is a key selling point. The drawback to online shopping is not being able to see or touch the product you are buying. Immersive technologies such as Arqball’s could help bridge that gap by giving people the opportunity to digitally manipulate and play with products before they buy.

I can see this becoming very appealing to high-end online retailers like Gilt who already spend a lot of time and money on lovingly photographing every luxury product on sale. Arqball’s platter, which it expects to sell for around $100, can only accommodate small objects not much larger than an Apple right now. But a professional photographer or retailer could build a bigger platter for larger objects. The technology works the same no matter the size of the object, as long as it rotates at a certain RPM.

Targeting online commerce is an obvious market entry strategy, but the app can be used by anybody. Lawrence sees it as a way to unleash “user-generated 3D content.” It seems like an obvious addition to any Maker’s tool belt. Over time, Arqball’s database of 3D objects could become increasingly valuable.

Lawrence and his co-founder Abhi Shelat are computer science professors from the University of Virginia. The company is completely bootstrapped and is based on technology they developed themselves. The app is free, and you get 5 “spins” that you can share. In the next few days, Arqball will introduced tiered pricing plans for users who want to share more spins.

Turntable.fm Goes Legit, Signs Deals With Major Music Labels

The biggest question hanging over social music startup Turntable.fm was whether the major labels would let it survive. The answer to that question is, yes. Turntable chairman Seth Goldstein is announcing at SXSW that after 9 months of negotiating, Turntable has signed licensing agreements with all the major music labels. I caught up with Seth yesterday at the Four Seasons in Austin, where he told me about the deal in the video interview above. (Greg Sandoval at CNET caught wind of the news a few days ago, and now it is confirmed).

Turntable launched less than a year ago, and now has reached one million users. Through its website and mobile apps, you can visit virtual clubs where you can spin music for everyone else in the room or just listen along, chat and bob your virtual head. The music licensing wasn’t straight-forward because depending on whether a user is DJing (and selecting tracks) or just listening (the majority of users), a different license applies.

But Turntable is an amazing marketing vehicle for the music labels, and they came to terms with the startup. In the video interview, Seth talks a little bit about how Turntable finds sponsors to bring major music artists to both Turntable rooms and live events. He also mentions that an Android app is in the works.