In the battle for the living room, the ghost of Steve Jobs looms large

In the battle for the living room, the ghost of Steve Jobs looms large

Summary: The major battles in the post-PC era will be fought in the living room, and the den, and the dorm room, and just about any place where people watch movies and TV programs and listen to music. Apple, Microsoft, and Google are all positioning their forces now. What will it take to succeed, and who will lead?

SHARE:

We can argue endlessly about when the post-PC era began and how steeply the market for conventional personal computers will decline. But there’s no question that process has begun, and the next battleground is engaged.

That war will be fought in the living room—and the den, and the dorm room, and just about any place where people watch movies and TV programs and listen to music.

It’s been an open secret for years that Apple will make a play for the living room eventually. Despite Steve Jobs’s protestations that Apple TV was “just a hobby,” a high-definition TV is the inevitable next step in the natural evolution of the Apple ecosystem.

And sure enough, the most recent excerpt of the Steve Jobs bio contains what appears to be definitive confirmation of those plans.

“I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use,” Jobs reportedly told biographer Walter Isaacson before his death. “It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud. … It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.”

That’s bad news for Microsoft, and even worse news for Google, both of whom are Apple’s chief rivals for this space. So what does it take to “crack the code”?

As someone who has been watching the digital living room for years, I think there are three elements:

First is user experience. Not just the process of using the system, but avoiding the hassles of setup that have relegated home theater systems to hobbyists and gadget geeks.

Second is the business relationship with content providers worldwide. Digital music is simple by comparison, and it has taken years for iTunes to build the global network that allows anyone to buy songs and albums with a click or a tap. Amazon and Microsoft are still playing catch-up, and Google is getting ready to enter that market. With movies and TV, you have a thicket of licensing and distribution models originally built to protect exclusive viewing windows. Cracking that code would make nine-dimensional chess look easy.

Third and last is the cable/satellite infrastructure, which is protected by government regulations and business relationships that will be difficult to disrupt. HBO and other popular programming providers have been notoriously resistant to anything that involves distribution over the Internet. Microsoft embraced cable support with Media Center, with little commercial success. I believe Apple wants nothing to do with the mess that is CableCARD, and is much more interested in bypassing cable and satellite providers than in partnering with them.

Apple’s introduction of iCloud is obviously the first piece of the puzzle. Even more important is the company’s unbroken record of protecting content with digital rights management (DRM) with no interference from third parties. The one and only attempt was Rhapsody, which Apple fought fiercely and won. There’s no more DRM on music, but it’s still there for other types of content.

Microsoft has a greater toehold in the living room thanks to the success of its Xbox consoles. Gaming was the Trojan horse; the real reason for Microsoft’s willingness to spend years and lose billions to succeed in this market is its early and prescient determination that this would be a key battleground. The new Xbox dashboard has the potential to be a winning interface, and the existing relationships Microsoft has built with music publishers and Hollywood will be huge assets in the next stage of this battle. Abandoning the PlaysForSure DRM ecosystem seemed like an admission of failure. In retrospect, rebuilding the DRM infrastructure around Zune, with Microsoft in complete control, was probably key to competing with Apple's DRM.

And then there’s Google, which flopped miserably with Google TV in its first incarnation. Google starts from far behind in this race. Hollywood certainly doesn’t trust the company, especially after its initial experiences with YouTube. And user experience has been the great failure of the company across the board. Even in its most successful non-search-related product, Android, Google admits that it hasn’t created “an emotional attachment” with its users. Catching up with Apple’s iTunes juggernaut and the entrenched base of Xbox consoles is a daunting challenge.

It’s hard to see any other competitors stepping into a major role. Amazon has had impressive success with the Kindle, but it’s far more likely to strike a content deal with one of the big three than it is to try to compete with them directly. Microsoft is the most likely partner in those scenarios.

Netflix and Hulu and other platform-agnostic content providers will have to scratch and claw to fit into the new living room. Google needs them most urgently.

Anyone in the dedicated hardware business has a particularly gloomy future. Cable boxes are probably a dying market, and it’s hard to see how TiVo fits in—except perhaps as an acquisition target for Google.

One thing that’s particularly clear is that this battle will not be fought and won overnight. It will take years, and it will involve tremendous amounts of resources from some of the largest corporations in the world. The fact that it will be dominated by the ghost of Steve Jobs makes the outcome much less clear than it would have been in a world where he survived to lead Apple directly.

Topics: Hardware, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Mobility, Security

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

42 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • RE: In the battle for the living room, the ghost of Steve Jobs looms large

    Not in my living room thank you. An Xbox/Kinect and a Win 7 PC are all I need. Attaching a cable connection gives me even more choice, but I could get by just with the PC.

    You also haven't mentioned the mostly illegal Torrent use, which delivers more TV and movies than Google and Apple TV combined. Producers should look toward mechanisms that allow honest people to pay for these downloads as they offer something broadcast and cable don't - no ads.

    And if a salesman cracked the code, I think we have considerable time before Apple can steal the actual tech from someone else ;-)
    tonymcs@...
    • Apple PROVED that $0.99 goods

      @tonymcs@... can generate more revenue than a $10 product. Just look at indy musicians and Angry Birds.

      Producers should embrace companies like Netfix, Hulu, Apple and Amazon instead of trying to destroy them. In fact, since movie theaters started charging $10+ for matinees (and $12 for microwave pizza), they are mostly empty all the time. They don't understand that a family of 4 can't afford to spend $100 per movie every weekend or even once a month. Movies are now a luxury, instead of a family affair.

      The more they increase the price of movies and prevent people from renting movies at an economical price, the more people are going to resort to downloading torrents.
      wackoae
      • RE: In the battle for the living room, the ghost of Steve Jobs looms large

        Well, at least technically it is majority of the people who make laws through their representatives, so if the majority of the people believes they're ripped off, then, perhaps, we will finally get affordable prices. And Hollywood less bragging about another film that made hundreds of millions. I think dozens of millions would be sufficient for the industry to carry on without serious disadvantage.
        HinoMusouka
      • RE: In the battle for the living room, the ghost of Steve Jobs looms large

        @wackoae

        Buy a studio and sell YOUR content for cheap and let us know how it worked,
        NoAxToGrind
    • Not in my either.....

      @tonymcs@...

      And that also includes anything Microsoft too...
      I'll keep my MythTV which does everything I need much easier than either Apple or Microsoft can do.

      Now if we can only get some real bandwidth to every home........
      linux for me
      • Nah, Myth sucks

        Media center could have been much more...MS was on to something, but they blew it. Myth TV gives you all the hassles of desktop Linux...right on your TV. And Google...well they are another MS.

        I hate to admit it, but Apple will probably get it right.
        otaddy
    • RE: In the battle for the living room, the ghost of Steve Jobs looms large

      @tonymcs@... Remember, this is a battle that is re-fought with the introduction of each new console, and each new generation of console. The investment in televisions is much longer-term than other devices such as the console, DVD, DVR, etc. so the "Disruption Opportunity" is frequent. As of this very second, I think Microsoft owns it. Among other reasons, if you look at the sales (in dollars) of video games vs. all other forms of video entertainment (movies, tv, etc.), the biggest chunk seems to be in console games. Until someone beats XBL and the 360, it seems like a no-brainer.
      m0o0o0o0o
  • RE: In the battle for the living room, the ghost of Steve Jobs looms large

    I personally like owning physical media and that's why Apple TV will never cut it for me...

    As for controlling the living room... I have an Xbox 360, a windows 7 PC for media center connect through XBox 360 and a Sony Bluray Player.

    Not a single piece of Apple tech exists in my living room.
    slickjim
    • Neither AppleTV or Roku provide any value add-on

      @Peter Perry If you have a PS3 or XBox, neither Apple TV or Roku will give you any value.

      If you don't, then getting a Western Digital (WD) TV Live Plus HD is a much better purchase than either product.
      wackoae
    • RE: In the battle for the living room, the ghost of Steve Jobs looms large

      @Peter Perry ... yes, I like owning the physical media as well, but I suspect we're part of a dying generation (like 'if you can't scratch glass with it it's not real money). However, I can't see the likes of Apple TV really taking over until there's universal high speed broadband.
      TV John
      • Itâ??s pure speculation

        @TV John
        The ambition Apple has is to create the universal digital hub around the Mac and they have practically accomplished this.
        What might be left to do is to make things faster and more powerful, and possibly even easier to do.
        People should not be so gullible and believe everything Jobs said during an interview. Why on Earth would he want to inform the world about what Apple plan to do ten years from now, or even next year?
        Mikael_z
  • RE: In the battle for the living room, the ghost of Steve Jobs looms large

    The sad thing is CableCARD is decent technology that would make the consumer happy. It just keeps getting stymied by law makers and regulatory bodies (CRTC here in Canada). Otherwise, we'd all be currently watching TV and our personal movie library through an Xbox.
    PeteK68
    • RE: In the battle for the living room, the ghost of Steve Jobs looms large

      @PeteK68

      An Xbox, how quaint. Can it run win95 ?
      Alan Smithie
  • As long as...

    I can switch it off! I have an Apple TV and I can't turned the darned thing off! Even if I don't use it for a few weeks, it sits there sucking power, no stand-by mode.

    We generally disconnect the power and plug it in when we need it... That said, we only use it as a music jukebox and photo viewer.
    wright_is
    • turn off

      @wright_is
      when you are in the main menu, hold the play button for two seconds. that puts it off.
      bannedfromzdnetagainandagain
    • turn off

      @wright_is
      when you are in the main menu hold the play button on your remote for two seconds. that will turn it off.
      bannedfromzdnetagainandagain
      • RE: In the battle for the living room, the ghost of Steve Jobs looms large

        @bannedfromzdnetagainandagain I'll give it a try. I've been using the "off" menu option under settings (translated from German, not sure of the exact wording in English). That just seems to turn off the video, when "off", it is still in the WLAN network, still syncs with the iMac and the hard drive spins 24/7...
        wright_is
  • MS will likely win

    If MS is able to have Xbox Live support an ecosystem of TV apps that can be routed to the PC, Windows Phone, the Xbox, and other consoles, MS should be able to dominate digital video entertainment - at least financially. On the PC side, slates and all-in-ones will likely act as smaller TVs throughout the home, while consoles which support Xbox Live will drive large TV screens - also throughout the home. Xbox Live will also drive games on these devices. Hopefully it will also drive radio. Therefore using Xbox Live as an entertainment engine, MS can turn hundreds of millions of devices into modern, state-of-the-art entertainment systems.
    P. Douglas
  • RE: In the battle for the living room, the ghost of Steve Jobs looms large

    [ SOS ] Complaint about Human Rights Violations by IBM China on Centennial

    Please Google:

    Tragedy of Labor Rights Repression in IBM China
    or
    How Much IBM Can Get Away with is the Responsibility of the Media
    or
    IBM detained mother of ex-employee on the day of centennials
    larkforsure
  • RE: In the battle for the living room, the ghost of Steve Jobs looms large

    I have an acer aspire revo running win 7 x64 and media center. I use 2 HD HomeRun tuners for a total of 4 tuners. A Hulu+ subscription and I'm golden. I just ditched uverse. I'm completely happy and saving a ton of money now
    mike2k