Can nobody rid of us the barefoot CEO? He may be gone, but Steve Jobs continues to manipulate the press from the beyond – this time through his biographer, Walter Isaacson. The Steve Jobs biography launches the hype for Apple’s next great product, a TV.
“It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud… It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it,” Jobs reportedly told his Boswell.
Some feverish pundits even assert that it’s in production. Ticonderoga Securities analyst Brian White thinks Apple TVs are “already flowing through factories over in China in early stage pilot and prototype production”. Piper Jaffray’s attention-seeker Gene Munster cites patents as the reason for his belief that Apple TV is going to become a patent. But we’ve been here before. El Reg’s Rik Myslewski recalled earlier that the iPad was being referred to as “delayed” in 2003 and “long-awaited” in 2004.
I don’t see anything wrong with wishing for a better user interface or consumer electronics experience. The child-like wishful thinking here is evident – but market realities can’t be ignored.
“When people say they want an Apple TV, they mean an Apple UI for their PayTV services,” tweets Enders analyst Benedict Evans. “Which are closed, proprietary and non-standard.” Ken Tindell, whose latest startup Vidiactive brings web video such as iPlayer and YouTube to TVs, agrees that it is an industry that’s closed to outsiders.
That’s not strictly true, and the Digital TV group, which codifies the standards into several hefty volumes, may wish to disagree. The argument that existing standards groupings and distributors can block an upstart was exactly the basis for predicting the iPhone would fail – the operators would continue to set the terms for handset manufacturers. But Apple generated the demand – the iPhone provided real utility – and dictated terms to operators.
Apple TV speculation continues regardless, because there are now so many paths for getting TV material into your home. Fortune magazine speculates that a combination of cloud and Siri voice recognition magic would allow Apple to bypass the existing TV industry. But TV is not a phone with a different purpose. There’s another way of looking at it and, dare I say, it needs a Jobsian perspective.
The iPhone was a success because it removed barriers to tasks that weren’t new but were really unnecessarily difficult on existing equipment. With Nokia’s smartphones you could find your location, find something in a location, you could Google… but it was tedious. And all the while, the user was fretting about the data usage. Steve Jobs’ real insight on technology is much more practical than the myth: he saw electronics as a tool, as a means to an end.
Can Apple TV do the same? It’s not going to be easy. Apple would need to get into the business of acquiring the rights to expensive, exclusive content. It would have to conquer the challenging economics of HD video delivery via IP packets – on someone else’s network. And Apple would have to control the experience end to end. That’s important, because without that pathway, no matter however you envisage it, Apple TV would simply be adding another layer to what is a well-established free-to-air, cable or satellite UI.
It would require a mode switch. TV is simply a frame around some content, at the end of the day, and an extra UI would make what people actually want a TV to do – watch the show, or game – more difficult to reach. I rarely hear people complain about the complexity of the Sky+ UI, and Jobs’ design legacy is all about reducing complexity, not adding to it.
Nor is this a battle Apple needs to fight by knocking down the front door with a SWAT team. Leave the Asian manufacturers to continue to produce their low-margin flat panels with ever diminishing margins. Just use the iPad and iTunes to nibble at away at the cherries, leaving free-to-air TV services looking increasingly bleak.
There might not be a “problem” here that really needs a Steve Jobs fix. Dead or Alive.