There are plenty of reasons not to buy Apple TV or Google TV, and some of them have to do with the people who hold many of the cards being perfectly happy with the way things are today. You can't really cut the cord if you like television programming, as many of us do, which is why we watch it in the first place. Meanwhile, cable companies are loathe to introduce a set-top box that would place their valuable programs alongside the web and apps, surely eating into viewing time.
But there's another big reason the television has stalled as an app platform while smartphones, tablets and even videogame consoles have taken off: the remote control. You can't touch a television from the couch, and today's button-based television remotes are barely up to the task of navigating a simple cable menu, let alone the panoply of all the world's apps and websites, with their diverse designs.
As rumors swirl that Apple plans to sell actual televisions running a next-generation version of Apple TV, the remote control question is more important than ever, especially if Apple TV is ever to become a killer app platform.
I once tested a television-connected PC that came with a gyroscopic mouse that controlled an onscreen pointer, which was about as inelegant as it sounds. Videogame controllers work better for this stuff, which is one reason Microsoft's XBox and Sony's PlayStation have made great inroads as television app platforms, even as Apple and Google have lagged. (See Wired.com's well-reasoned take on apps migrating to televisions.)
Of course, you can already control the current Apple TV with any iOS device and control Google TV with an Android. But Apple TV and Google TV aren't full-blown app platforms yet (Google is closer). So those controls are more about navigating menus than enabling true, app-like interaction, which is where XBox controllers designed for gaming have an advantage.
Maybe the iPad shouldn't be a remote control of the television. Maybe it should be a clone of the television.
That way, you'd be able to "touch" the television from the couch. making the television nearly as natural an app platform as the tablet itself, and Apple's (and Google's) interface problems would be over. You'd have to shift your eyes away from the big screen momentarily, but for interactive television dreams like being able to shop for the shirt worn by a particular character on a show, browsing an extensive music library, and even playing some games, you really only need to use the control intermittently. It just has to be good.
Some have suggested that Apple's Siri voice assistant will act as the main remote control for Apple TV 3.0, which sounds plausible, given Siri's warm reception on the iPhone 4S. Even in that scenario, an iPad-as-remote would make more sense. It would put the microphone closer to the viewer's voice than a set-top box would. Voice commands would work much better being issued to a handheld device than to a set-top box across the room -- especially given that this control would have to work while sound issues from the television.
I'd like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use. It would be seamlessly synched with all of your devices and with iCloud. It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.
We may have finally cracked his code if the next Apple TV, reportedly coming in the second half of next year, uses an iPad as its remote.
Follow Eliot Van Buskirk on Twitter: www.twitter.com/evolverfm