The hockey-puck-sized set-top box is called Apple TV, and that makes things confusing when you want to talk about a hypothetical Apple TV set, by which you mean a big screen you can watch shows and movies on.
Tim Bajarin of PC Magazine thinks Apple is going to stick with the hockey puck for now:
The problem with TVs is that people buy them and hold on to them for five to seven years on average. While Apple could design a TV that could be upgraded in software, it makes more sense to create a sophisticated box that works with all televisions and allows the company to innovate around this model.
This argument is compelling if you imagine that the Apple TV set will simply be a television set with the Apple TV box integrated. And that’s what most people are imagining, because that is what every other attempt at a “smart” TV has been: just like your last TV, but with more items on the on-screen menu.
If you’re a patriotic American, you have a TV in your living room. It has a remote that you use to change the volume and choose video input. It is probably connected to a cable box and/or DVR, which also has another remote which you use to change the channel and, if you have a nerd in your family, also changes the volume. You also have a DVD player or Xbox or Blu-ray player or PlayStation or who knows what else. When you want to watch a movie, you need the nerd in your family to show you how to work the “choose input” on — which remote is it now? Oh hell, I’ll just watch the news in the kitchen.
The problem with modern TV sets is that they are a mess of boxes and wires. A coaxial cable enters your house. It connects to a splitter, which sends one wire into a cable modem (for your Internet) and another into your cable box/DVR. The cable modem is connected to a Wi-Fi router; the cable box is connected to your TV. The TV is connected to a bunch of other devices. There are a half-dozen remote controls. Worse, at least two of the remotes attempt to be “universal” but aren’t really because there is no interoperable standard for remote controls, so it must be “programmed” for the particular devices you have, and even professional programmers aren’t good at programming.
If somebody (it doesn’t have to be Apple, but, seriously, who else will?) wants to manufacture a TV that will solve this once and for all, they are going to have to build a TV that takes responsibility for all of the support functions that these separate devices provide.
What would that look like?
- One coaxial cable comes out of the wall and connects directly into the TV set.
- The set contains an integrated cable modem. Thanks to DOCSIS, most cable modems are interchangeable. Oh, now the TV set is your Wi-Fi router, too.
- The set also contains an integrated cable TV tuner. Thanks to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, your cable company will provide you with a CableCARD that you can insert into the TV, to make it compatible with your service.
With the above, we have eliminated the cable modem, Wi-Fi router, and cable set-top box. Now we just have a TV set with two wires coming out of it (coaxial cable and power). We’re assuming the Apple TV software is integrated, so we could stop here and have a pretty good product: one simple remote, live TV, plus iTunes and Netflix and Hulu Plus streaming.
What are we missing?
I didn’t include DVR yet; since it has to sit between the tuner and the screen, it would have to be integrated. You could argue that, given all the streaming options, it isn’t entirely necessary, but given how weird and inconsistent the streaming agreements are among various TV shows, most people would want DVR today. I could see it going away in the future, though.
You could watch DVDs and Blu-ray discs on an integrated player. Then again, depending on who you ask, optical discs are legacy technology already, so maybe we should lump disc players in with the consoles as optional, alternate video sources.
But if we add a couple of HDMI ports on the back, won’t we be going back to square one, and reintroducing the problem of choosing inputs and teaching your mother how to read a wiring diagram?
Perhaps. But I think we could handle it for two reasons:
- We have already replaced the old TV remote and cable box remote with a much simpler remote. Those two were always the worst offenders, each fighting the other to be the One True Universal Remote, but failing since the only way they know how to fight is by adding more and more buttons. On the other hand, it is pretty clear which thing on the coffee table controls the Xbox, it looks nothing like the TV remote.
- Because we have integrated the cable tuner, the TV “knows” which video source is which. So we can put a “Home” button on the TV remote which always shows you a helpful menu like Live TV, Recorded Shows, Netflix rather than HDMI 1, HDMI 2, HDMI 3. Heck, I bet if the software was written by smart people, it could even identify which ports have something plugged into them and maybe even what that something is. And then you don’t have to name inputs by using up and down arrows to spell words.
So there you go. We solve the TV problem by integrating all of these utility boxes into the screen itself, and writing well-designed, responsive software to control it.
Note that we haven’t used Siri to control it, so plenty of tech journalists will still be able to dismiss it as unimpressive when it is announced. But my parents, who would only have to plug in a coax cable and a power cord, would love this.