The moment I read the “I’ve Cracked the TV” quote from the Steve Jobs bio, I knew what the subject of the next few months at the rumor mill would be. Here it is in context:

“‘I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use,’ [Jobs told Isaacson]. ‘It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud.’ No longer would users have to fiddle with complex remotes for DVD players and cable channels. ‘It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.’”

That seems to be a lot more certain than Jobs was last year at the D8 conference when he took a question from an audience member. In it, he laid out some very important things that no one is really talking about.


(Flashless)

The whole clip is much more fascinating than much of what I’ve been reading over the past week. The interface that Jobs is talking about isn’t whether Apple will use Siri or 3D gestures or not. It is how to put a layer on top of everything else with a consistent UI. He gets down to the nitty gritty at 1:30-3:00:

Add a box on to the TV system. You can say well gosh I notice my HDTV has a bunch of HDMI ports on it one of them is coming from the set-top box I’ll just add another little box with another one. Well, you just end up with a table full of remotes, clutter of boxes, bunch of different UIs, and that’s the situation we have today. The only way that’s ever going to change is if you go back to step one and tear up the set top box and restart from scratch with a redesigned UI and present it to the consumer in a way they’re willing to pay for it. And right now there’s no way to do that. So that’s the problem with the TV market. We decided what product do we want the most, a better TV or a better phone? Well the phone won because there was no chance to do the TV because there’s no way to get it to market. What do we want a better TV or better tablet. Well a better tablet because there’s no way to get the TV to market. The TV is going to lose until there is a better go to market, or there’ll just be a bunch of TIVOs. That’s the fundamental problem. It’s not a problem of technology, it’s a go to market technology.

So the question becomes: How is Apple going to “tear up the set top box” and start over?

While a lot of the content coming through the cable channels has gone online, most of it, especially breaking news, live events and sports, is still only available via traditional cable. I don’t see this changing dramatically over the next year or so. As I see it, there are two ways Apple could go on building its TV.

1. Apple could make deals with as many cable content providers as possible and deliver as much content as possible over IP through a iTunes/AppleTV/iCloud interface. There was a rumored deal two years ago that Apple was going to sell IP cable TV for $30/month – Eddy Cue was in charge (he’s now head of iCloud incidentally). It never happened and it likely won’t because the cable companies won’t allow it.

Would an IP-only Apple HDTV just lack whole swaths of the TV content spectrum? Would people buy a TV that may not show their college football games or local news channels (and have no way to pipe that in? While Apple is famous for cutting out certain formats (Flash, .AVI, etc.) I don’t see how this could fly. And I think it is too complex to manage all of these thousands of programming relationships.

Another problem here is that cable companies, especially when faced with an IP-only competitor going over their lines, could throttle data or impose harsher bandwidth caps that make watching the horrifically typical US household average of 5 hours of TV prohibitive.

IP-only TV doesn’t sound like a realistic option. And give Google and their GoogleTV effort some credit here. They realized that before Apple.

2. So, and this might be what Jobs meant when he said “cracked”, Apple could build a layer that sits on top of Cable Boxes, iCloud, and anyone else who wants to get on your TV including gaming machines. It would have one consistent simple Apple UI for all of your TV needs (like Jobs stated above).

More importantly, it would control the CableTV input, supplanting the set top box. Instead of grabbing the TVGuide from the cable companies, Apple could pull the TV schedules from Titan, Gist or other service and put a clean, simple, consistent UI over top of it. As an example, think of the way a Slingbox or eyeTV software sets itself up on your cable system. Those systems know what network you are on and your physical location so it knows what channels you will have. Apple’s could easily do the same thing.

Then there is part 2 of Jobs’ view:

Then you get into another problem. Which is there isn’t a cable operator that is national. There is a bunch of cable providers. There isn’t like a GSM standard like with phones. Every country has different standards, different government approvals. It’s very balkanized. I’m sure smarter people than us will figure this out. That’s why when we say Apple TV as a hobby we use this phrase.

If smaller companies like Sling and eyeTV have figured out how to deal with cable companies globally, then it wouldn’t be a stretch to think that Apple could do the same, all with a consistent UI globally.

Perhaps it is just an app. Like the “Cable.app”. Just like Apple made the “Phone.app” on the iPhone.

But how does Apple leverage this?

If you are a cable company or even a TV show production company, you don’t want to just sit on a low level channel in Apple’s “Cable.app”. You want to be front and center like apps are on an iPad. By becoming the gatekeeper, Apple can make it advantageous for content producers to come out of the cable channel and into the IP delivered App world just like they do on other iOS devices (and you can bet that Apple’s TV will be an iOS device).

Apple is currently doing the same with its new Newsstand Folder/App which is giving some publications 14x growth by putting content in users’ eyes. Conde Nast is showing huge gains as well since it went on Newsstand. Location Location Location.

The same thing happens when music is put on the front of the iTunes Store. This is prime real estate because Apple is the gatekeeper.

Every big US cable company already has an app that lets you stream content to an iPad. Most major networks have iPad apps that let you watch some shows. This is clearly a superior experience to channel surfing for live content.

By creating a full ecosystem and becoming the gatekeeper, Apple can motivate more companies to deliver content over IP via apps.

The UI:

Apple has recently patented Microsoft Kinect-like 3D gestures that could augment the control from iOS devices. As for Siri controlling the user interface of such a TV system, there are a lot of problems with that, perhaps best demonstrated by the clip below:

Apple does have some noise cancellation technologies available that will make voice navigation more of an option. The truth is that Apple’s TV UI will probably be a combination of a lot of technology it has built up and some that it is developing.

Time Table

As for when it will be delivered, I think we’re looking at something pretty far out. We’ve heard nothing reliable about Apple testing a product so a release early next year seems far fetched. We’d be more inclined to believe that a H2 2012 release was more realistic.

Will it be TV, Box or both?

The biggest question I have is whether they will release this device as a full xx-inch HDTV, a set top box, or both. As a consumer, I’d probably prefer the set top box model because I already have a huge TV that I don’t feel like trashing yet. A lot of Apple fans however, are ready to plop down a premium price for an Apple HDTV sight unseen. So, I feel like Apple has to exploit that.

Perhaps they will do both.

The Sales Pitch

“Apple finally tackles the TV. Remember music before the iPod? Remember phones before the iPhone? Remember tablets before the iPad? iTV offers the world’s largest supply of HD Video content, all easier to manage. iTV gets out of the way and lets you find what you want faster than ever. Spend less time searching and more time enjoying.”

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