Let TV Be TV: Fantasizing Apple's Next Move

"So this is what you are spending your time with after going to the gym?" my wife asks, as if I had just introduced her to my mistress -- dismissive, condescending, defensive, withering. She had been wondering why my gym sojourns were suddenly taking longer than usual. Her spousal suspicions were raised.

But knowing me, she understood that her "rival" surely was a gadget, not a woman. And truth be told, if the 70-inch Elite HDTV in Best Buy could have shrunk to the corner of the darkened home theater room that day, it would have crumpled its stunningly beautiful LED display into a ball and wept. My wife had met my paramour and was having none of it. Cagily, she looked to the left, found a standard-issue budget Samsung at a fraction of the price and quality, and said, "I like the picture on that one better." She
doesn't know TVs, but she does know me. End of discussion. I would harbor my lust for this over-priced hunk of hardware in private henceforth. Even if I got the TV I wanted, I would forever hear her undercutting it with comments about how the other one in the store looked more vibrant. I knew from the start I had married a very smart woman, but I am only discovering just how smart.

Those of us who have been covering the parallel paths of digital technology and media change for the last two decades can't shake our fetish for the toys. Perhaps it is time to embrace it. As 2011 ends, we already know what the top tech rumor is bound to be for 2012. A couple of lines in Walter Issacson's bestselling bio of the late Steve Jobs have sparked the firestorm of tech rumors that will keep us warm for months surrounding an Apple HDTV.  When Issacson quoted Jobs saying that Apple finally had "cracked" the
problem of simplifying the increasingly twisted software and hardware inputs to the modern TV experience, it started speculation that a real Apple-branded TV set finally would surface in 2012. That spark has been fanned now by analyst claims, rumors coming from supply chains, and purported timetables. After the incredible misfire of rumors of an iPhone 5 that everyone seemed convinced was coming this past October, you would think we would learn our lesson.

Nah. Perennial rumor monger DigiTimes in Taipei, which always insists it knows "supply chain" sources, now says we may get an Apple TV in the second or third quarter of 2012. Materials for the device are being scheduled for production in Q1 2012, the news daily claims. The story cites Korean news  sources reporting that Samsung Electronics has already started crafting the chips and that Sharp is making displays. That latter partnership may bode well for an Apple TV by the way. While Sharp has never been considered a top-tier HDTV manufacturer, the company recently licensed the highly respected Pioneer Elite moniker for a new insanely priced line of LED TVs that many reviewers have declared recently the best HDTVs on the market. It seems sensible that Apple would want to enter a wholly new market for the company with exceptional display technology -- not just a dazzling interface.

A 60-inch Elite LED set now is going for about $6,000. There is a 70-inch that I see discounted for about $7,500. No, that is not a misprint. I have already tried to make the argument to my wife that this translates into only $150 an inch for the best image I have ever seen from a TV. "Doesn't it feel three-dimensional even in 2D?" I ask.

"Hmm, I don't know. That one looks pretty sharp," she says, waving at the LG sets, knowing full well she has thoroughly thwarted me. "Isn't Apple making a TV? Don't you want to wait for that?" Even she knows the rumors.

But DigiTimes is reporting that Apple will enter the market with relatively modest dimensions, starting with 32-inch and 37-inch sets. Since I have already waded into the speculation game here, let me say that this is a curious decision if true. Other reports say that Apple will have several models going up to 55 inches, which would seem to be smarter considering that the market for new HDTVs generally is in the high 40-inch range and up now.

On the other hand, if Apple is marrying Elite display technology with its software, then smaller screen sizes would keep the price point high but palatable.  One can imagine Apple coming in at first to tease and lead the market rather than try to dominate it. Give them all smaller sets with an awesome image and OS and watch the market scramble, perhaps to partner rather than compete. It seems to me that even Steve Jobs understood that the TV market was incredibly complex and entrenched and that this might be one place where Apple was ready to license its OS to third-party hardware.

It almost goes without saying that an Apple HDTV would likely create a mobile/tablet-to-TV loop that will be formidable and could have implications for marketers and the nascent second-screen app market. Right now, the Apple Remote app that controls Apple TV, and its AirPlay functionality that sendsiOS device images to Apple TV, are rudimentary. Having an Apple OS baked into the TV and all of its content inputs would give the company an important gatekeeper role in what is going to be an enormously important
piece of the home entertainment ecology in years to come.

The battle for the living room of tomorrow will take place on the new remotes: the smartphone and the tablet. Everything that ITV has imagined for decades now -- personalized TV experiences, addressable advertising, detailed viewing data, and (most of all) commerce -- becomes more technologically flexible, personal or just  enjoyable when offloaded to a second screen.

My own feeling is that Apple's most radical move would be to undercut the current theme of computerizing one's TV with apps and connectivity. I wouldn't be surprised if the Apple's HDTV pitch to consumers makes the case that TV should be TV and not a computer. The company's smartest move might be to put focus on the mobile piece of the new TV model, in which you don't manage an interface or an app library on the main screen, but do all of this work on a phone or tablet. For Apple, it is a smart way to push the interactivity to devices where it already has a massive penetration, putting itself at the gate no network or cable provider currently owns. Better, it introduces Apple TV with a new and simpler sensibility about the technology. Manage it all on the platforms with which you are already accustomed. Let the TV just be a TV.

For gadget freaks, this is also the way to pitch buying a new Apple TV to the spouse. "Get down here -- I can't figure out how to turn on the damned TV!" is the perennial refrain in my and millions of other households in America.  Adding computers and features to the inside of next-gen TV is not necessarily the best solution to a problem that is as chronic as it is under-appreciated: the PC-ification of the living room.

"So if we spend $7,500 on a new TV we really don't need, will I finally be able to turn it on and change channels without having to use four remotes?" my wife asks as I shuffle, defeated, into the Best Buy parking lot.

"No."

"Really? $7,500 and it doesn't make my life any better?"

Tags: apple, mobile, tv
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