How is TV formed?

Of the pre-release excerpts from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, the one that intrigued me the most was the one that related Jobs having “finally cracked” the next-generation television set. It was tightly related to the then-upcoming iCloud, but this bit of narration seems like the money quote: “No longer would users have to fiddle with complex remotes for DVD players and cable channels.”

Now rumors are rampant that Apple will soon unveil its TV, most recently suggesting it will come in three sizes (32″ at the low end, 55″ at the high end) and that the next iMac will bridge the gap by offering TV functionality. Key to all the rumors is the clear notion that Apple’s television set, unlike the extant Apple TV, will be an all-in-one set, not a set-top box. Jobs seemed pretty set in his belief that a set-top box wouldn’t work, even though one could do all the functionality he envisioned, and that Apple already sells a set-top box.

For a couple reasons, I’m not sure what to make of this. First, most households already have at least a couple of set-top boxes — the cable/satellite receiver and a video game console, which doubles as a media player. My living room has three set-top boxes (a DirecTV receiver, a PlayStation 3 and a Wii), and that’s not counting the VGA cable that sometimes connects my laptop to the TV. The second issue follows directly from this separation of functionality — I need to be able to update or replace my TV distinctly from my set-top boxes, or the entire enterprise becomes cost-prohibitive. The all-in-one model that was attractive to computer consumers who flocked to the iMac shouldn’t look nearly as viable in a market a) full of people who are already comfortable plugging cables into their TVs, and b) lacking in big educational customers who want all-in-one devices for ease of maintenance.

At the same time, Jobs was also thinking about interface complexity — getting rid of all your complicated remotes. Part of this is about getting Siri on your TV and using voice commands to control everything, but I’m pretty skeptical that most TV consumers will want to do that. Imagine that you just want to channel-surf on a Saturday afternoon; do you want to keep saying, “next channel,” until you find something worth stopping for? Or you’re flipping through several football games to follow your fantasy team; is repeatedly calling out channel numbers an attractive control scheme?

Of course, none of this takes content availability into account. I really wonder whether the success Jobs had manhandling the big record labels left him overconfident in his ability to bend TV and movie studios to his will. The reason why most people have multiple set-top boxes is that they want access to multiple, exclusive content libraries. I want a broad selection of channels, including premium channels, to be available to me live; I need a cable or satellite receiver. I want to play Little Big Planet; I need a PlayStation 3. I want to play Super Mario Galaxy; I need a Wii. For other things I have other choices — if I want to play Blu-rays or watch Netflix, I can use my PS3 rather than add another device — but even the hyper-converged, iCloud-driven Apple TV isn’t going to get rid of the basic functionality of my existing equipment. So I’m still left wondering — unlike with the iPod, iPhone or iPad, but much like the current Apple TV — what the point of this device is. Voice commands and better user interfaces can be added to any existing box, and streaming video will be a central component of every TV device that’s ever designed from here on out. What benefit do I get from buying a TV that’s hardwired into that content control functionality?

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