Commentary by Steve Effros
What if the long rumored, much discussed, never seen “Apple Television” wasn't a television at all? What if it's a new way to navigate? I'm not here talking about “AppleTV,” which allows broadband streaming to your television screen, like Roku and Boxee. No, I'm talking about the oft-speculated appearance of something from Apple that Steve Jobs, before his death, was quoted as saying would have the “…simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.”
Jobs also said this all would be synced through Apple's iCloud, and we now know at least that part of the plan seems to have been put on the back burner because the structure of the industry and the business plans that have developed over the years simply are not conducive to a sudden shift to something like a complete “a la carte” world over night. That may have worked for music and iTunes, although there's still lots of debate about that, but with video it's clear that the costs of both production and promotion are such that aggregation and packaging are likely to be around for some time to come.
Being able to pick the programming you want to see and when you want to see it is not inconsistent with the idea that aggregated program packagers will be dominant players for the foreseeable future. The DVR, or the “Remote DVR,” or even “cloud-based” storage or availability of product, is more than likely to become a more accepted and indeed maybe even a preferred way for lots of folks to watch video. That, after all, is what YouTube is all about for “short” videos, and they are now bulking up. Hulu, Vudu, Netflix and Amazon Instant Video are all hot on the trail. Roku and Boxee, along with AppleTV are just some of the technical devices available to watch the video, and there are more on the way. To suggest that this is a hotly competitive developing area right now would be an understatement.
So what could Jobs have meant when he said he had “cracked it?” Certainly it wasn't the “television set” itself. That's just a screen, and there are lots of elegant, very well built ones on the market right now. No, the real challenge is to present all the programming that is available to any given customer and have it easily appear on whatever screen they have. That's a design and programming uber-challenge, and I suspect that's the thing that will reap major rewards to whomever “cracks it.”
There are certainly lots of folks trying. Of course it takes not only great visual design of masses of data (names and times of live programming, availability of archived programming, pricing, descriptions, etc.) but also the skill to be able to reach agreements to incorporate that information from different providers (TV, cable, Internet) and then port the selected program, with proper authentication or payment, to a screen. That takes a lot of processing power, too. It's going to be one heck of a device (mini iPad?). Doing all that easily and elegantly is the trick. There are some interesting efforts already underway (take a look at NextGuide working on the iPad for one.) Whoever “cracks it” will have a unique new relationship with viewers that can be monetized, and it doesn't need to be the one who makes the set or makes or delivers the content. One thing's for sure: it's going to happen, and it's something we should encourage. “Cracking” navigation will benefit everyone in the long run.