Here we go again. A new rumor says Apple has begun testing its long-rumored television. Of course, there's a Cupertino-sized gap separating "testing" and "selling" any product, but few people would bet against Apple launching a television set sometime in the next couple of years.
About a year ago, I rounded up many factors that weigh against Apple releasing a TV. Apple's going to have to figure out a number of difficult things for such a product to be successful, only one of which is the actual product. Getting into the TV market presents challenges in suppliers (big LCD panels aren't the same as chips), retail (where do they go in Apple Stores?) and overall market opportunity (it ain't that great, if Sony's balance sheet is any indication).
That's not to say Apple isn't planning to do it I believe today, as then, that Apple will one day soon release a television, probably called the "iTV." And now there's more evidence than ever, even putting aside today's latest rumor. There have been lots of signs in 2012 that Apple has, as company CEO Tim Cook told NBC's Brian Williams, "intense interest" in the TV market.
For starters, there was Steve Jobs' revelation in Walter Isaacson's biography of him that he had "cracked" the interface for an Apple television. Then there was the slowly enlarging platform for the Apple TV "hockey puck" box, which recently added support for Hulu Plus. Also, Apple was rumored to be talking to major cable operators. Add to all that the host of analyst predictions that Apple will absolutely, positively release a TV soon (yeah, analysts, but still).
It's a lot of smoke, but if you squint, you can make out the outline of a TV set somewhere in there. There are obviously no details rumored or otherwise on the product yet, but from Apple's (slow) approach to the market, some interesting patent filings and general activity in the TV market, one can discern what iTV would need to be, if not what it actually is:
1. Be More Than a TV
Today's TV makers are typically good at one thing: making great screens. Video, however, is just one part of the TV experience sound, connectivity and access to content are all part of the experience.
An iTV would need to roll all these components into one device, incorporating your cable box, DVR and video apps (e.g. Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, etc.) not to mention some kick-ass speakers. This jibes with Apple's end-to-end approach and allows it to build an interface that controls the whole shebang.
It also flies in the face of the current market, which typically sees different devices handle each of these tasks. For iTV to truly be a game-changer, though and perhaps more importantly, to really feel like an Apple product it will have to be the TV that does so much more.
2. Make Your iPhone the Ultimate Remote Control
There's another reason for Apple to build a TV that does everything the universal remote control. Or rather, the lack of a need for one if the TV has everything you need. One remote will do, and that remote can be just another app on your iPhone or iPad, just as this Apple patent suggests.
There are already remote-control apps, of course, but they're typically crude and require the use of an adapter. The iTV's remote app would work over Wi-Fi and be easy to update as the TV added more functionality and content.
There have been rumors about an Apple TV including Siri, letting users control it with voice. That may happen, but like Siri itself, it won't be a game-changer. Neither will the gesture-based remote control that's described in this other Apple patent, although that's a bit better. No, it's the fact that the remote app will control everything about the experience right out of the box, from dimming the picture to fast-forwarding your DVR that's something that still needs to be "cracked," as Steve Jobs described.
3. Seamlessly Integrate the Second Screen
The iTV app would also be much more than just a remote control. Apple is well aware of the "second screen" revolution that's happening, and it would be ridiculous not to include ways to interact with the content onscreen, probably through a partnership with the likes of GetGlue or Zeebox. Much like Sony is doing with its Xperia Tablet S, the app would also be your channel guide.
Finally, the swapping of content from iOS device to TV and back again is a no-brainer. iPhone and iPads can already send video to Apple TV via AirPlay, but it's the other direction from TV to tablet (or phone) that would be the big benefit. Samsung is already doing this with its some of its devices, but it's limited. Being able to transfer whatever you're watching on TV be it from a stream or broadcast to your iOS device would be a great convenience to many.
4. Provide All Kinds of Content
Today's smart TVs and media boxes give you apps like Netflix, but they don't have cable channels. Cable boxes give you channels and a DVR, but they often lack good apps or the kind of on-demand content that iTunes and Amazon provide. At the same time, users have plenty of their own content they'd like to enjoy on a TV. And let's not forget over-the-air broadcasts (even though most people have).
iTV, if it truly epitomizes the Apple approach, will be the only video device you need to buy for doing any and all of that. Some TVs today claim to do this, but as much as they provide, their interfaces are often clumsy and they often become outdated quickly. With Apple's design credibility, its existing relationships with content providers and the always-connected nature of any iTV, good content will always be front and center.
5. Keep Cable Operators Happy
One of the best things iTV may do is get rid of the cable box that's become staple of living rooms in America. It would also be the hardest. The cable industry made a half-hearted attempt to do away with them with CableCard, but that went nowhere for a multitude of reasons.
If Apple is to really change the game for TV, integrating cable (and possibly satellite) channels in a sensible way wouldn't just change how consumers watch TV it would change how the business works. That's the Steve Jobs-level feat that Tim Cook has before him, and it's probably even harder than getting the music labels to play ball with iTunes. But those negotiation rumors are leading somewhere.
Think about the potential of a TV that can download and integrate software from cable providers in much the same way that smartphones have custom software from carriers. Buy an iTV, put in your Comcast login, and you see their program guide; if Time Warner's your provider, you'd see theirs. Your cable channels and DVR interface are now just another app.