With TV App, Dijit Hopes to Ride Out the Coming Apple Revolution in TV
I have a lot of Apple gear, and I’m pretty happy with it. There’s just one problem. The better Apple’s stuff gets, the less patience I have for everyone else’s clunky hardware and software. Televisions and all the boxes we hook up to them are the worst offenders. No two TV manufacturers or set-top-box makers use the same remote controls or user-interface conventions, and they’re all painfully bad (except those developed for the hockey-puck-like Apple TV, which are decent but not great). That’s why I’m hoping that Apple will eventually follow through on Steve Jobs’ dying wish, in biographer Walter Isaacson’s words, “to do for television sets what he had done for computers, music players, and phones: make them simple and elegant.”
While we await that glorious day, though, there are some existing technologies that can help ease the pain. In fact, there’s no lack of innovation in the area of video entertainment, as the acres devoted to new “digital home” technologies at this week’s International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas attested. The problem is a lack of unification—meaning interfaces that would make it just as easy to find, buy, watch, and share great cable content on your TV as it is to find, purchase, consume, and share great book, magazine, or game content on your iPad.
For the last few months I’ve been following a TV technology startup called Dijit Media that’s both innovating and making an attempt at unification. They know Apple is coming, and that the Cupertinoids—unless they’ve completely lost their touch in the post-Jobs era—are likely to create a product that melds beautiful TV hardware, a slick and simple operating system, and a rich content marketplace. Meanwhile, the San Francisco-based firm has built its own universal TV remote for iOS devices, and is using it to foster a new “second screen” culture.
The Dijit app, which controls your TV with help from a Griffin Technology gadget called the Beacon, marries channel listings from your cable operator with diverse Internet resources like Facebook, YouTube, and Netflix. It turns your iPhone or iPad into a kind of social command center for the living room—a place where you can browse listings, find out what your friends are watching, or rearrange your Netflix queue, all while sitting back in front of your big screen. It works with hundreds of models of TVs, DVRs, and set-top boxes, replacing the welter of remote controls and on-screen interfaces that come with those devices and moving all of the control and choice to the smaller but far more versatile touchscreen.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t yet fully integrate with Internet-TV boxes like the Apple TV and the Roku Player—and I’ll have more to say on that in a minute. But Dijit figures that the more progress it can make toward unification before Apple enters the market in earnest, the more Apple’s competitors will need to seek the startup out. “We think sooner or later Apple will come in, and it won’t be a ‘hobby,’ and it will show what’s really coming,” says Jeremy Toeman, Dijit’s chief product officer. “The Samsungs and Vizios of the world will need external technology to bridge the gap, and the only way to bridge it will be to go cross-platform. We think we can help the consumer electronics manufacturers adapt to a world where they are not as proficient at building the end-to-end ecosystem as Apple is.”
Dijit, originally known as UMEE, was founded in 2009 by former Nvidia and Riverbed Technology engineer Maksim Ioffe. It won funding in late 2010 from technology investor Alsop Louie, backer of streaming-video startup Justin.TV and mobile iOS game developer Smith & Tinker. The startup switched to its current name at CES in January 2011, which is also when it released the iPhone version of the remote-control app and announced its partnership with Griffin.
The $70 Beacon device, which is available at Apple Stores, bridges the communications gap between smartphones, which use radio protocols like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and televisions, most of which are limited to infrared input. For now, such adapters are an unfortunate but unavoidable part of all multi-screen schemes. Dijit competitor Peel, of Mountain View, CA, uses a pear-shaped adapter, whereas the Beacon resembles a rounded beach stone. “Yeah, it’s one more thing” to stick in your living room, Toeman admits. “But we think that one more thing actually eases a lot of pains.”
Toeman was a key hire at Dijit: he’s a “smart TV” veteran who ran product development at Sling Media, creator of the Slingbox appliance that lets users tap into their home TVs and DVRs from their laptops and mobile devices. Toeman’s biggest project since joining Dijit in June has been building the iPad version of the Dijit app, which came out last Friday.
“We believe that the remote control is the anchor point of the entertainment-consumption cycle,” Toeman proclaims. That’s probably been the case since 1955, when families started fighting over Zenith’s first wireless TV clicker. What’s changed recently, of course, is that the iPad and the iPhone are full-fledged, touchscreen-driven computers, meaning they’re much better adapted for navigating information than that giant screen on the other side of the living room. “The second screen is going to be the place to control your TV experience and get things done,” Toeman says. “That’s where we want to be.”
When you first bring home the Beacon, you pair it over Bluetooth with your iOS device, download the Dijit app (an Android version is coming for non-Apple people), and go through a few screens designed to configure the app so that it knows your local channel lineup and can simulate the remotes for your TV and other video devices, spitting out the codes they expect. Once that’s done, you’ll spend most of your time in using the app’s listings page, where you can swipe through a grid of all local programs. If you select the listing for a particular program, Dijit shows you a “Watch” button which, if you tap it, will cause your TV to tune to that channel. The app also shows you a variety of information about the program, including an episode summary, comments and likes from other Dijit users, IMDB-style cast and crew listings, and links to related YouTube videos (which you can watch from within the app). It also lets you leave your own comments, which you can optionally post to Facebook or Twitter.
If you choose to connect the Dijit app to your Facebook account, you can see a second listings page made up of shows recommended by your Facebook friends. And if you connect Dijit to your Netflix account, you can browse and manage your queue there—though, sadly, there’s no “Watch” button for Netflix Watch Instantly programs. That’s because the Dijit app isn’t truly universal yet. While you can use it in place of the remotes that came with your Apple TV or Roku Player or Tivo, there’s no grid showing your DVR recordings or the shows available to you on iTunes or Netflix. Apparently, that would require a level of integration the industry hasn’t yet reached.
But that complaint may be a little unfair. I’m a cord-cutter, having given up on cable TV about three years ago, so I’m not really in Dijit’s target market. I don’t have 500 channels of cable programming to sift through, which means that until Dijit fully integrates with Netflix, iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon, where I get all of my TV content, it’s just a glorified, touch-driven remote control.
Which brings us all the way back to Apple. Right now, according to Toeman, cord cutters are still a small group. “The two real numbers the cable industry is worried about are cord-trimming and cord-never-getting,” he says, meaning people who cut their Gold package of premium channels back to Bronze, and 20-somethings who grew up on the Internet and don’t see much need to sign up for cable in the first place. My own guess is that as soon as Apple comes out with a truly end-to-end TV product—an actual television with Wi-Fi access to a video store in the cloud, offering on-demand access to most of the same shows and movies you’re currently buying for $180 a month—all bets will be off. Other manufacturers will rush to copy Apple, the cord-trimming will turn into a real riot of cord-cutting, and younger audiences will be lost to cable providers forever. Naturally, Apple’s television will work seamlessly with its mobile devices, facilitating even more of the kind of second-screen IMDB and Wikipedia surfing that we’re already growing addicted to.
Our viewing habits, in other words, are likely to keep changing radically, to the ruin of many incumbents in the broadcast and entertainment industries. Toeman thinks Dijit is ideally positioned to ride out the storm. “We think that in the connected home of the future, you are going to get content from lots of sources,” he says. “Apple will create this best-of-breed fusion, and everything else will be fragmented. A second-screen app like ours is perfectly suited to rise up and be incredibly sticky.”