An Apple-branded big-screen TV: It’s the rumor that refuses to die.
The latest noise, fueled by a Bloomberg Businessweek article, is that former iTunes lead Jeff Robbin is heading up an Apple television project. This speculation is somewhat legitimized by a statement Steve Jobs shared with his official biographer, Walter Isaacson. Jobs said, “I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use. It would be seamlessly synched with all of your devices and with iCloud. It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.”
But this is just the latest hubbub over a big-screen, living-room-dominating Apple TV. Since 2009, Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster has been speculating that Apple has a full-fledged TV in the works. Another analyst, Forrester’s James McQuivey, also strongly believes that Apple has directed resources toward TV development.
In a phone interview this September, he told Wired.com, “I’m 100 percent convinced that the Apple TV rumor is true. I’m also convinced Apple may never bring this product to market. If we don’t see one, it’s because Apple is convinced it’s too broken a market to enter into.”
iSuppli principal analyst Randy Lawson basically agrees. He told us he thinks it’s likely that Apple has a television in the works, but it’s a long-term goal, and we probably won’t see it within the next 12 months.
But for now, let’s not worry about Apple’s practical hurdles. Let’s accept that a big-screen Apple TV is inevitable, and consider what Apple may deliver to the “connected TV” landscape, were it brave enough to accept the challenge.
Industry watchers see three key areas of innovation:
Integration With iCloud, iTunes and Other Apple Gear
iCloud seamlessly syncs content so that you can share it among your Apple devices, from iPhones to iPads to Apple computers. Currently, iCloud can be used to store TV shows, photographs and other media, but it’s not farfetched to imagine the service being used for movie storage in the future. iTunes could be enlisted as a purchasing platform, providing a new flow of revenue for Apple — always important when launching a new hardware product, particularly one that has a long shelf life, like a big-screen TV.
“The most important feature of an Apple-branded TV would be seamless integration and connection with other Apple products in the home,” DisplaySearch analyst Paul Gagnon says. Such integration would allow users to push content from one device to another. To this end, iPad mirroring (a feature made available with iPad 2), as well as AirPlay music or video streaming, would likely be an option with the TV set, as well.
“I think there are a lot of people with mobile devices who have content they want to watch on a big screen. So far, the process to get that on a larger television screen is convoluted,” Gagnon says. But using iTunes to access content, and iCloud to store it, would be a dead-easy solution — especially if Apple could partner with content providers to make movies and live content available.
“While a solution for live TV combined with previously aired shows ‘recorded’ in the cloud remains a significant hurdle, perhaps this code is precisely what Jobs believed he has ‘cracked.’” So wrote Piper Jaffray’s Munster in a note to clients this Monday.
A User-Friendly Interface — Care of Siri and Touch Control
“One clear frustration point that users have with TV sets is the huge, bulky, multi-keyed, IR-based, always-lost-can’t-find-it remote control, and the clunky, page- and table-based user guides that requires [you] to scroll through reams of pages just to find what they’re looking for,” iSuppli analyst Randy Lawson says.
Apple, of course, already has several tools in place to address Lawson’s user-experience nightmares. The first is Siri, which could drastically simplify content search and selection, thanks to its smart voice-recognition technology. You could toss that heinous remote in the trash, and instead direct your TV experience using voice commands:
“Siri, resume playing TRON: Legacy.”
“Siri, download the latest episode of Community.”
“Siri, pause YouTube and get me a beer.” (OK, that last one may not be entirely realistic.)
For those uncomfortable with barking commands at Siri, the iPhone and iPad could be used as elegant remote controllers. Virtual keyboards wouldn’t be too burdensome for content searches — we already use them every day — and Apple’s handheld devices could also be used as controllers for onscreen games (assuming the Apple TV runs iOS and provides access to the App Store). And perhaps the gyroscopes and accelerometers within iOS devices could be used for navigation, allowing us to tilt to scroll through menus or fast-forward through movie credits.
Currently, the app and game offerings on connected TVs and set-top boxes are quite meager. With iOS compatibility, App Store access and an improved user experience, we may actually want to use apps and games on our TVs. Because, you know, they wouldn’t suck.
A Unique Form Factor, Improved Audio and FaceTime
Would Apple’s smart TV look like every other set on the market? “I think it’d be shockingly different in terms of form factor,” Gagnon says. In general, Gagnon says, the TV would be high quality: LED backlit, with a high refresh rate and possibly Wi-Fi and Bluetooth built in.
Global Equities Research analyst Trip Chowdhry believes that an Apple television set would be very similar to the Bose VideoWave HDTV, but even more simple. It would have a “spartan but elegant design sensibility,” he says, and would use a single cable (the VideoWave needs three). Chowdhry expects an Apple TV would be ultra thin, and would sport at least 16 speakers.
Lawson thinks audio quality would be an Apple TV trump card. In recent years, display quality has improved for most big-screen TVs, but because TVs are getting thinner, audio quality has suffered — or has at least remained stagnant. Lawson isn’t sure what solution Apple would come up with, but says “a robust audio solution would be a clear differentiating factor” for the company.
Lawson also thinks it’s likely that an Apple TV would include a camera for FaceTime video chatting. And that’s just the beginning of what Apple might do with a built-in camera. For example, a system that analyzes physical gestures, much like the Microsoft Kinect, would add another convenient way to interface with the TV.
Taming the Last ‘Untamed’ Room
The living room is the last “untamed” room in the home, Gagnon says. We can carry our laptops, iPhones and iPads to work and back, and from room to room, but our TV stays where it is, and for most of us, it’s only used in a very passive way.
But an Apple-branded TV could very well revitalize the way we “watch” TV and relax with our friends and family. A big-screen Apple TV would also be the next logical step for Apple in its quest to control our entertainment and content-consumption experiences. With a home entertainment ecosystem comprised entirely of Apple gear — a phone, tablet, computer, cloud network, and, yes, a TV — every device works seamlessly together, and looks good doing so.