What If Your Next TV Is a Tablet?

It is a dark time for the TV rebellion. Although legions of cord-cutters have abandoned their cable subscriptions, Hollywood troops have driven the early TV-technology startups from their hidden Silicon Valley bases and pursued them across the Internet. Evading the dreaded cable and satellite companies, a group of freedom fighters led by Boxee, Netflix, and Roku have established a new secret base inside their set-top boxes. The evil lords Comcast and Time Warner Cable, obsessed with choking off à la carte Internet TV, have dispatched thousands of TV Everywhere testers into the far reaches of the suburbs …

Okay, maybe ripping off the opening crawl from The Empire Strikes Back is a cheap way to sum up the current situation in the Internet TV galaxy. But you have to admit there are some nice parallels.

Just take a look back at Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s cover article, “Revenge of the Cable Guys.” As the piece explains, the gatekeepers of the television business, namely the cable and satellite companies who aggregate and distribute TV content, have decided not to sit around waiting for tech entrepreneurs to destroy their precious Death Star (oops, I mean their $60 billion revenue stream), the way their music-industry brethren did a decade ago. Instead they’ve leaned heavily on their suppliers, the Hollywood studios and TV networks who create content, to stop giving away their stuff for free on the Internet. And they’ve cobbled together their own technologies, like TV Everywhere and Comcast’s just-announced Streampix, to appease cable subscribers who want to watch TV shows on their laptops and smartphones.

In fact, if you read commentaries from people like Bill Gurley, a partner at Benchmark Capital, it sounds like the rebels in this scenario—the Silicon Valley upstarts who thought they could disrupt the cable industry by offering consumers cheaper “over-the-top” or Internet-based subscription services—have been mistaken, about a great many things. Talk all you want, Gurley says, about the freedom and convenience of being able to buy one TV show or movie at a time—or about how it’s “just so obvious” that people should be able to “watch what they want, when they want, on whatever device they want,” to quote TechCrunch’s Erick Schonfeld. None of that matters, because nothing, absolutely nothing, is going to come between the content owners and the $32 billion they earn every year in affiliate fees—that is, their cut of cable and satellite subscription revenues.

The prospect that these fees might be cut off or reduced is exactly what caused Hulu, a joint venture of Fox, NBC Universal, and Disney, to cancel its deal with over-the-top provider Boxee. And it’s why digital distributors like Netflix are having to shell out a lot more cash than they used to for content licensing deals. “As a result of these maneuvers, the current trend in the market is for less rather than more prime-time content to be openly available” over the Internet, Gurley observes.

It’s not that innovation in TV-content delivery has screeched to a standstill. It’s just that the disruption is happening a lot more slowly this time around, with the incumbents in the industry retaining a huge, probably decisive amount of firepower. As much as cord-cutters like M.G. Siegler and myself would like to live in a world where we could get HBO Go on our iPhones without having to pay for an actual cable subscription, it’s not going to happen. As Dijit Media’s Jeremy Toeman has pointed out, most content creators are perfectly happy with their lucrative cable distribution deals, and are clueless in any case about direct-to-consumer marketing, billing, and all the other tasks that go along with Internet distribution.

But while Hollywood and the cable industry may have beaten back the over-the-top rebellion, a second disruption is now underway—and in this case, I don’t think everything is proceeding as the incumbents have foreseen. I’m speaking, of course, of the tablet revolution. Which, let’s be frank, is really the iPad revolution. (Only 39 percent of all tablets shipped in the fourth quarter of 2011—and, likely, a far lower percentage of tablets actually sold—were Android devices.) If Roku, Netflix, and their ilk made us rethink access to television, the iPad is making us rethink the experience of television, and the consequences could ultimately be more far-reaching.

You’ve probably heard gadget industry pundits talking about the “second screen.” Usually this refers to the smartphone, tablet, or laptop that’s at hand while viewers are watching a scheduled TV program. Increasingly, people are using these devices to do things like tweet or browse celebrity profiles on IMDB. With apps from companies like Dijit, where Toeman is chief product officer, viewers can also use the second screen to navigate TV listings and even control their televisions.

But I think today’s second-screen apps are only scratching the surface. In reality, the iPad is the first second-screen device that’s actually good enough to be the first screen.

“Smart TVs” and “connected TVs” may be all the rage at the Consumer Electronics Show, but I think TVs are about to get dumber, not smarter. I’m laying a bet, right here and now, that the days of the television as we know it—a standalone appliance with a built-in tuner, a goofy software interface, and an incomprehensible remote control—are numbered. Five or 10 years from now, if you have a TV in your house at all, it will simply be 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.]

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

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