How Close Are We to Steve Jobs’s Apple TV Dream?

The latest edition of Jean-Louis Gassée’s always stimulating Monday Note takes a highly informative look at what Steve Jobs may have meant in this comment to biographer Walt Isaacson that he had “cracked” the TV user interface. A key, Gassée speculates, is the idea (which he credits to Daring Fireball’s John Gruber) of channels-as-apps.

Old TV with Apple logoI remain skeptical, probably more so than Gassée, about Apple’s intentions of getting into the TV display business. But I have no doubt about their ability to–eventually–revolutionize the TV business by building the ultimate TV content controller, whether it is integrated into a TV or in a separate box connected by a single cable. And it’s the business, not the technology, that’s the problem.

The key, as usual these days, is the iPad. First, an observation. To the extent that people want interactive content while watching TV, whether it’s stats during a sports event or cast information in a movie, I am not at all sure they want it on their TV display. Directors, whether of movies or football games, do an excellent job of putting the images you want to see on the screen  (and stations already mess it up with ugly irrelevancies like promos for other shows.) There isn’t any spare real estate.

But an iPad–it could be another tablet but Apple is way ahead in this game–makes a wonderful auxiliary display both for extra content and for navigation. The trick is integrating it properly with the TV or set top box, so you can get that cast info without having to go to a separate IMDB app.

A lot of this might be possible with the equipment, even the miserable set top boxes supplied by cable companies, we have today. My iPad already can control my TV, my experience with Verizon’s FiOS remote app being happier than Gassée’s with Comcast. What it mostly needs is a completely redesigned user interface that does better than mimicking the existing on-screen displays.

Even better. my iPad “knows” what I am watching, even without help from Verizon. Yahoo!’s Into Now app does an amazing job of identifying what content your TV is tuned to. All we need is the software glue to connect the pieces.

If the cable companies and their allies in the content business were smart–a large if–they would be racing to enable this new world by disrupting their own business before someone else, like, say, Apple or perhaps Google, does. It requires will, not rocket science.

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Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.

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