"Hobby," my ass. As expected, Steve Jobs poked out of his magic turtleneck and presented us more cooler-than-thou iPods. And they are really cool. Regardless, today's big news is for a product Steve Jobs once famously referred to as a hobby: Apple TV. Far from being an afterthought, the new Apple TV is a big deal, and it sets the stage for a future Apple product — an actual TV.
First off, the new generation of iPods is impressive. Front-facing camera on the Touch, multi-touch interface (but physical, not automatic orientation) on the even tinier Nano, buttons returning to the Shuffle, the new iTunes 10 Ping music social network in iTunes 10 (but no cloud version). How any pundit can (prematurely) postulate the death of iPod after Apple sold 9.4 million of 'em in the last quarter befuddles me, even considering the 8 percent drop in sales from last year.
But this time it was all about the "one more thing," Apple TV. For just $99, you get a palm-sized HDMI/Wi-Fi box delivering streaming $4.99 day-and-date new movie releases, 99-cent TV episodes from ABC and Fox, Netflix, YouTube, Flickr, streaming from your own PC, and AirPlay Wi-Fi streaming from an iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad to your Apple TV-connected HDTV. Apple TV (not iTV, probably a result of the ongoing dispute with Britain's ITV network) will not only not be a hobby, it's now a portend, a warm-up — hell, a full dress rehearsal for a real Apple TV — you know, one of those 50- or 65-inch LCD flat-panel thingies. An Apple HDTV. iHDTV.
Why does Apple getting into the HDTV business make sense? Three reasons:
TV makers suck at convergence. And Steve Jobs loves to make/remake stuff that sucks. For instance, only now are some HDTV makers building Wi-Fi connectivity into their sets, a stupidity oversight in 2010 equivalent to Ford selling cars without tires. The few who include Skype in their sets aren't building video cameras and mics into them, forcing you to buy add-on gear. You have to add nearly every other advanced TV capability — optical disc drive (Blu-ray/DVD), DVR, video game, video streaming, PC-based media syncing, et al. — via an increasing number of HDMI-connected boxes. Most astoundingly, Sony just unveiled new 3D HDTVs that don't have the emitter for 3D glasses built-in.
One thing they are building into TVs, though, are widgets and apps. Many "connected" HDTVs from Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, LG and others aspire to be a smart box. But these not-so-smart HDTVs are made by historically dumb box makers (take that modifier either way) who haven't learned the first thing any PC product manager worth his supply chain learns: the key to adoption is integration (in other words "if you build it in, they will come"). As a result, connected TVs have so far failed to catch on.
What Apple brings to the TV party is what it brought to the portable-media player, the cellphone and the tablet PC: this nearly seamless content, functionality and user-interface integration. No current TV maker (maybe no one in tech) has this wherewithal to do that. The new Apple TV represents two-thirds of the battle — the content and the interface.
All that's missing is the screen.
What no other HDTV maker can bring to their not-so-smart HDTVs is content. Apple's new 99-cent TV rental business — and Steve Jobs is right that NBC, CBS and all the others will soon come crawling if the new Apple TV sells — will destroy the DVD and watch-when-we-tell-you-to-watch TV businesses as iTunes destroyed the CD business. I'm having fun imagining hundreds of sweating TV executives soiling their boxers pondering the impact of this new 99-cent reality. (Disclosure: DVICE is owned by NBC Universal.)
Like all ossified businesses, TV networks and carriers are nervous Nellies about change, just as the newspaper/magazine and record industries still are having difficulty adjusting to the Internet. Similarly, TV networks fear syndication and cable-carrier deals will suffer, and cable/satellite/telcom carriers fear subscribers will bolt if anyone can rent what they want to watch for a buck. As a result, so far they've resisted the Apple TV rental-center offer.
But what the networks want doesn't matter. We and they already are caught in a content Möbius strip. As more content becomes more available via more outlets, we want more content to be more available via more outlets, which fuels more content becoming more available via more outlets. Consumer demand, not network control, is pushing this inexorable ubiquitous content availability process. Apple is tapping into, and Apple TV and an Apple HDTV perhaps accelerate, this watch-what-we-want-to-watch-when-we-want-to-watch-it world.
What about the hardware? Apple already makes the hardware — it's called an iMac. An Apple HDTV would just be a much bigger iMac.
Apple understands integration. An Apple HDTV could and would be an all-in-one unit, something current TV makers couldn't even consider since so much of their business model is based on separate product profit centers. It'd include a slot-load Blu-ray player (yeah, I know, not even the latest iMacs include a Blu-ray drive, but Jobs is anything but stupid), a high-capacity DVR/hard drive with TiVo-like programming capability, a webcam and mic array for living-room FaceTime or Skype video chatting, built-in Wi-Fi connectivity, along with a fully merged PC/TV jack pack, SD card slot and USB jacks. Maybe even 3D — not for TV necessarily, but for gaming.
Of course, Apple would bring more than relatively simple function integration, though. An Apple-programmed HDTV could let you remotely program or view programs without a Slingbox, or transfer DVR-recorded programs onto an iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch via the really cool AirPlay, do Game Central-style multi-player remote playing, Ping social networking for music and video, etc.
One drools at the one-box possibilities. At least I am (although I suspect an Apple HDTV would be an LED-backlit LCD instead of a plasma screen, and be a bit too expensive for us poor tech writers).
Oh, scoff if you will (and you will). But if the new $99 Apple TV takes off as Jobs hopes and expects, he'll definitely have to consider dropping the other Apple TV shoe.