By Kit Eaton
Tim Cook's interview frenzy last week stirred up a whole bundle of fun for future TV watchers. There was particularly intense interest in Cook saying that TV remains an "area of intense interest" for Apple.
Some took this news as further evidence that 2013 will be the year Apple really leaps into the TV fray. Even the Wall Street Journal, considered to be Apple's de facto "leaky" channel, is in on the speculation--noting several prototype designs exist in Cupertino labs, with parts on order from China. Others cautioned against too much enthusiasm.
Inevitably in this time of bloodthirsty technology battles, it looks like several other big players also have ideas for bringing TV truly into the 21st century. New data from Morgan Stanley suggests that 18% of American's already own a "smart TV" that's connected to the Web in some way, but only 13% know that they have this capability. Which means there may be a market for a TV that's actually smart, and as easy to use as your average Apple product.
Innovating The Interface
Today's TV is amusingly 20th century: Turn it on and watch. Then sit back, let the content wash over you, and be a passive consumer--a position that's in stark contrast to how we choose to listen to music on Spotify, say, or read our newspapers online or download and play with smartphone apps.
That's the first problem. The second is that where TV providers like cable companies have innovated and give you a free set top box with built-in Tivo power and smart scheduling, the set top box itself is almost universally terrible. It often has a user-hostile interface, or it may be restricted in irritating ways by the cable provider...or perhaps both at once.
That's why Steve Jobs once said there was room to "go back to square one and tear up the set-top box and redesign it from scratch with a consistent UI."
Apple could do this with an evolution of its existing Apple TV product--which is already being updated with Bluetooth keyboard support. Slap Siri in the box too and you could command you TV without a fiddly remote. Siri could even make you care less about channels or paid-for-content: "Find me Star Trek" you'd say, and Siri would dial to the right channel, or offer you the chance to pay for a show right there. If a putative Apple television also ran iOS apps then TV could change beyond all measure, becoming your chat, IM, video calling interface that also manages the family calendar and plays games.
Google TV has already made progress in this direction, and its recently revamped interface brings Google's legendary search skills to the scene along with a powerful voice search using natural language. A connected Google TV can also show you Netflix content alongside YouTube clips and uses Knowledge Graph to intelligently shape how it presents potential program choices to the viewer. Never mind that Google may be trying to sell the set top box division of its new acquisition Motorola Mobility...the firm is committed to TV innovation, and has even recently launched the service in the U.K. If Google applies even more brain power to TV in 2013, perhaps bringing some of the "psychic" user-pattern prediction powers of Google Now into play, TV could really change.
Then there's Samsung. It's already been innovating the TV with its Smart interface that brings Net connectivity along with some level of app experience to the screen. Later-gen Smart TVs even have voice control, and a built in camera for gesture control--a neat way around the problem of complex remote controls. Samsung Ventures just invested $5 million in a company, Delivery Agent, that's all about TV-based e-commerce. DA is good at matching products shown in films and TV shows and then allowing viewers to buy them via a Smart TV interface, smartphone or web. That could be a way for Samsung to monetize its next-gen TV interface idea.
Even Verizon is getting in on this game--patenting a future set top box tech that snoops on TV watchers to detect their sounds, foods and even ethnicity and use the data to drive TV content or even advert choices to suit your exact mood at that moment. And gaming firm Valve's boss is certain we'll see living-room friendly PCs connected to TVs in 2013.
TV Tech Transformed
But what of the TV set itself? After Tim Cook's recent statement, there's renewed speculation Apple will turn its "hobby" set top box into a full-fledged TV set. Much has been written about this idea, and a wholly new product from Apple in Spring 2013 does make sense.
The firm may even been have been funding Sharp, pushing the development of IGZO screen tech--a next-gen display system that will make your LED TV look terrible. Apple has all that expertise in super-skinny devices and smart integrated sensors, too...to say nothing of its stunning retina displays. And here's the kicker: 46% of those surveyed by Morgan Stanley said they'd be willing to pay over $1,000 for an Apple television, much more than the average $884 they'd pay for their current TV tech.
Google is, it would seem, less likely to tackle the matter of full-on TV tech (though it does seem to be enjoying slapping its own-brand Nexus logo over tablets and smartphones). If Google does play for next-gen TV tech in 2013 it'll be in partnership with a firm like Sony or Samsung, which already has design expertise and production lines rolling. It's even possible Google may try to revolutionize the set top box, perhaps taking lessons from its Android tablets and relevant design successes like the Roku box or the Apple TV puck.
One thing is abundantly clear: It's time for TVs to get sexy in terms of design, and for set top boxes to ditch that awful 1980s Hi-Fi box vogue.
Socially Sassy On The Second Screen
Current TV revolutions are happening quietly away from the big screen in your living room and instead on the small tablet screen in your lap. We're all doing it, and second screen attention is quite definitely beginning to drag full attention away from the TV--but in a good way, with folks searching for content based on the show, chatting about it on social media and possibly even buying stuff based on adverts.
If either of these big firms really does make a play for next-gen TV tech in 2013, then we may even see some of this second-screen action move up onto the main screen of the TV--that way it's integrated into the viewing experience, and it's possible the explosion of second screen browsing is largely due to the antiquated state of current TV tech.
2013 is the year your TV stops simply talking at you, and you start using it to communicate with other viewers.