Smart TV? Dumb TV!

As Apple prepares its March 7th event, speculation about its new tablet and TV offering is rampant in the gadget echo chambers on the web. So, with this being my first post on this fair site, I figured I may as well ride that wave and deliver a few extra pageviews.

My theory is that the more connected a TV is, the less it needs to be able to do by itself. Connectivity means the processing, the control, storage, the heavy lifting can all be done by other, more suitable devices than the TV set itself. Control your TV with an intuitive UI on a device you actually like to use, and never loose: a smartphone or tablet. Browse available content – local and in the cloud – and push, swipe or stream it to the TV for it to start playing near instantly. Again, from a device you’re already holding while sitting on your couch. Discover, talk about and interact with content that you’re watching. You guessed it, from a tablet or smartphone. It seems almost anything you’d want to do on your TV can come from other devices and the networks it’s connected to. So how much does a TV itself really needs to be able to do anymore?

Applying this theory to Apple and their imminent announcements, here’s my purely speculative set of predictions, or should I say wish list, of what Apple’s next TV product is.

  • Let’s call it the TV Stick. Physically it’s a dongle with an HDMI connector so you just plug it into your TV. It swivels so it’s suitable for wall mounted TVs with both rear and sideways facing ports. It’ll be hidden from sight.
  • TV Stick is able to a run on the power it draws from the HDMI port (for newer TVs that support that), so the only cable your TV needs is power. For older TVs a micro USB port is present so it can run on external power, perhaps provided by a spare USB port on the TV set
  • It can output 1080p. For that reason it’ll have to be powered by an iPhone 4S / iPad 2 class processor or better
  • TV Stick has an updatable database with HDMI-CEC ( codes so it can control the TV it’s connected, e.g. turn TV power on, switch it to the HDMI port it’s plugged into, change volume to a desired level
  • It has 802.11n (or better yet the still faster 802.11ac) so it connects to your WiFi with enough wireless bandwidth for 1080p streaming. Plus it uses the connection via Bonjour to iTunes and iOS devices on the local network
  • It’s able to stream movies, TV series, music videos and more from the iTunes store in the cloud, plus from any PC or Mac running iTunes on the local network
  • Your music collection, plus now also your home videos, photo’s etcetera can be accessed via iCloud, which will also support video and image content
  • It has some local storage, say 16GB so its price stays low. This allows it to buffer and pre-fetch content locally for instant playback when you start streaming a show (say you’re into Big Bang Theory, it will automatically download and store the first minute of the next unseen episode, and will start pulling in the remainder of the episode once you’ve started it)
  • Why not throw in Siri and have it listen to voice commands. Although when plugged into the back of a TV this may not work so well.
  • And of course the killer app is Airplay support. Any media you can access on your iPhone, iPod Toch, iPad and (soon) Mac can be seamlessly and in glorious 1080p be pushed or mirrored to your TV via this device. Makes it into a great alternative for games consoles too.

So this is basically a smaller, smarter and probably cheaper to produce version of the current second generation Apple TV, you know, the ‘still a hobby’ product. Or look at it as a dumbed down, cheaper iPhone 4S – without the screen, battery, camera and cellular chips. It doesn’t need an app store – your tablet or iPhone already has one, you can find any content you’d ever want there, and you can mirror or stream it straight to your TV Stick. It’s a cheap yet powerful platform, combining the best of your iOS device with the biggest screen in your house. It has more brain, at a much lower cost, than any ‘smart TV’ offers.

One rather important feature is still missing though. The TV bit.

I think the answer is a separate device, wirelessly linked to the TV Stick. Let’s call it the TV Base. Like an Airport Express, TV base has Ethernet and Wifi abilities. It too extends the reach of your Wifi to ensure your TV Stick, with its relatively small antenna low power design, gets all the broadband it needs, especially useful if your TV is far from your router. TV Base is able to simultaneously support several TV Sticks, you so you can plug one into each of your TV sets and access the TV Base’s abilities from any of them - simultaneously. TV Base is something you can hide away in a closet under or next to your TV, together with all those ugly boxes and the cable mess. It comes with enough ports so you can you plug the other sources you may still care about into it. A cable box, a games console, a Bluray player. It acts as a smart HDMI switch for these, and pushes any source you select on it wirelessly to the TV Stick and your surround sound system if you have it. Via HDMI-CEC or perhaps an IR emitter it can, once again, control all the devices it’s connected to, and offer this control via a gorgeous UI on an iOS device. TV Base overlays the TV with an elegant UI for big screen feedback and navigation. It provides a unified experience across anything you do on your TV. Siri-based voice control for such a device seems more feasible too.

The killer feature of this box however would be that you can connect it to cable, satellite, terrestrial and IPTV, maybe even all at the same time. You can actually watch TV with this thing. This is the hardest part to make ‘just work’ with all those different standards around the world. However mobile networks like GSM and CDMA are very different too and Apple now supports both. IPTV plus the major US standards plus DVB in its different flavors is a good offering to start with. TV operators can provide a paid subscription specifically for this device, which perhaps means it’ll need a slot for a conditional access module, or a virtualized equivalent. It’s not likely cable companies are willing to accept a lower fee than you pay for one of their boxes, but I also don’t see why they’d charge more, if all they need to provide is a signal and some DRM it should be good business for them. And TV operators no longer have to provide us with UIs, which is a good thing in almost most all of the cases. Instead, TV Base will offer a beautiful on screen EPG plus anything else in the TV UI department that truly matters, and ditches the rest. Top the TV Base capabilities off with some local storage for prefetching on demand content, pausing live TV and storage for your most-likely-to-watch shows.

iCloud with its near infinite storage sits behind every TV Base in the world. iCloud then becomes the worlds biggest, shared DVR, to which you can upload any TV shows you record. Like iTunes Match for music, you can match your recorded TV against Apple’s database so you can watch it back in original hi-def broadcast quality if it’s recognized, just like your 128kbps mp3 music magically becomes 256kbps AAC when streamed back from iCloud. And if the TV show you ‘recorded’ is either matched or uploaded to iCloud, you can stream or download it to any of your TVs. Or to any iOS device. Even when you’re out and about.

Think about the implications of these last three sentences. Could that be what Steve Jobs meant when he said he ‘finally cracked TV’?

The Achilles heel of Apple is of course social and interactive entertainment, which it so far has failed to meaningfully integrate into its media offerings. Nobody uses Ping and Game Center is hopelessly limited. The way iOS integrates Twitter is elegant, but for TV there are so much more opportunities. That’s a challenge I personally think about every single day, so let me save that for a dedicated future post.

While all of this is of course pure speculation there is one fundamental idea behind all of this, which reaches beyond Apple’s fictional new TV ecosystem. Making TV hardware smarter is not important. What matters is to connect and integrate TVs better with the increasingly smart, social, personal and user-friendly devices we already use several hours every day – the smartphone and tablet. And with margins on those far exceeding TV hardware profits, it makes business sense too: TVs need companion devices more than the other way around. Like iTunes, the TV product itself doesn’t need to be a profit center, it can potentially be sold at cost. Because having one means you’ll be needing a new iPad or iPhone, as only the latest version has all the features. Plus each of your family members will need one too. With stratospheric profit margins of iPad and iPhone, any new product that helps sell those at volume is a sound investment.

So, come March 7th I’ll either look like a sage or a fool. The latter is far more likely of course, who knows Apple may be just releasing an updated iPad and declare its Apple TV hobby project dead. Yet in that case perhaps someone else can step up. Samsung, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, I don’t care - I’ll wear the t-shirt, will be lining up in front of your store the night before you launch it and will leave with a TV Base plus TV Sticks for all TV sets in my house.

I’m a dumb, connected TV fanboi.