What If Your Next TV Is a Tablet?

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a dumb terminal, one of several devices that can “catch” the content that you “throw” to it from your main information hub. And that hub will be your tablet.

Now, I know this sounds a little crazy, especially if you just dropped $2,000 on a 63-inch flat panel HDTV and borrowed your brother’s pickup truck to haul it home. But hear me out. I think moving TV content to the tablet is the best way out of the user-interface hell that is the modern connected TV—and I think it’s the path that Steve Jobs had in mind when he hinted cryptically to biographer Walter Isaacson that he had “finally cracked” the problem of how to make televisions more Apple-like.

If you have an Apple TV over-the-top box and you’ve used the AirPlay feature, which allows you to stream audio or video from your iPhone, iPad, or Mac to your television over your local Wi-Fi network, you’ve already had a glimpse of the future I’m talking about. Here’s how it will work: You’ll open an app on your iPad (let’s call it Ferdinand, just as a placeholder) that will let you browse a selection of stored or live-streaming TV episodes, movies, and short videos. Naturally, Ferdinand will offer summaries, previews, recommendations, user reviews, and à la carte prices. (Or maybe the content will be bundled by subscription, as with Netflix and HBO Go and Streampix; the exact payment mechanism is immaterial to my argument, which is about the user experience.) Once you select a piece of programming, you’ll be able to watch it right on your tablet, or throw it to your TV. You’ll pause, rewind, skip ahead, and otherwise control the viewing experience from the tablet. If you want to tweet or browse IMDB or do other “second screen” stuff, you’ll just multitask, pulling up a different app while your show keeps streaming in the background.

Let me say all this in a different way, just so there’s no mistaking the message. I am not talking about using your tablet as a glorified remote control. I’m talking about moving the whole “TV experience” to the tablet, and treating your TV as a dumb remote display. People can get confused on this point. Back in January, Slate technology columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote a piece critiquing the idea of adding a Siri-like voice interface to televisions. In a tweet, I publicly agreed with him, saying “Siri + TV is silly. iPad + TV makes more sense.” Manjoo thought I meant using the iPad as a remote control, and he tweeted back: “Disagree. You can’t touch buttons on the iPad, which is a key way we use remotes. You don’t want to have eye contact with a remote.”

I tried to clarify matters in my reply: “Disagree ;) Remotes are artifacts of the 1-screen age. The key is to move the whole interaction away from the TV.” That was probably too cryptic, but my point was that the 10-foot user interface, the craptastic jumble of menus and icons you get when you turn on today’s smart TVs and Internet-TV appliances, is simply broken beyond repair. Even Apple hasn’t gotten it right in the interface for Apple TV, which is a sure sign that it’s a pointless battle.

Toeman thinks the problem is that the people building 10-foot user interfaces have no experience with this kind of design. “The world of consumer electronics has (barely) evolved from dials, knobs, and switches to doing highly complicated interfaces on screens,” he writes. “Not only that, every year the requirements are changing! And since this is a new field (despite almost 20 years worth of 10-foot UIs), there are very, very few folks out there who have dived deeply into this problem…So the same people who are used to just getting the TV to work right, are now also in charge of creating ‘an experience.’ I think this is a guaranteed-to-fail situation.”

I agree that this is one big fail, but for a slightly different reason: the design challenge is simply insurmountable. When you have lots of information to navigate, you don’t want it to be 10 feet away. You want it to be right in your face. And you want to manipulate it using a touch-based interface, where gestures such as swiping, pinching, and spreading are an enormous help, speeding up navigation and aiding with comprehension.

That’s why your next TV will be a tablet. Out of fairness, I should say that Toeman, who is one of the wisest gurus I know on all of this stuff, laid out 95 percent of my argument for me in a post back in December. When Steve Jobs claimed “I’ve finally cracked it,” Toeman says, he was talking about AirPlay, which “enables you to have the most organic, natural, helpful user experience you can, then just shift that experience to the device you want, easily and flawlessly.”

That’s exactly right—but I don’t think Jobs was talking about AirPlay alone. What’s still missing from the equation is a full Apple-style “TV commerce” experience—an iTunes equivalent that’s tailored just for browsing and buying TV content, and that includes a much broader selection of shows than what you can currently get from Apple. I agree with investor and O’Reilly blogger Mark Sigal that the rumors about a forthcoming Apple television—an actual Apple-branded big-screen TV—are wrong. I think Apple’s next TV product will be an app, not an appliance.

The app will be a vast store, with shows licensed from Comcast and DirecTV and Time Warner and all the major content creators. Above, I called this app Ferdinand, but if Apple stays true to form, they’ll call it iTV. Alternatively, as John Gruber has suggested, Apple could let each content provider create its own app or “channel,” then collect all these channels in a folder similar to Newsstand. But I think this would be an uncharacteristically messy solution, since—if the motley collection of magazine and newspaper apps in Newsstand is any guide—each channel would probably have its own interface conventions.

Is iTV coming? Is the end in sight for the old-fashioned television? Who knows. Maybe Apple will introduce iTV as part of the expected iPad 3 launch event on March 7—it would certainly add to the excitement. To foresee all that, you’d have to know the ways of the Force.

[Update, February 28, 2012: The invitations to Apple’s March 7 media event have gone out. The wording on the invitations—“We have something you really have to see. And touch”—is fueling speculation that some kind of Apple television device or app will be introduced alongside the iPad 3.]

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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