Steve Jobs might have 'finally cracked' the simplest TV UI, but here's a problem he didn't solve

Steve Jobs might have 'finally cracked' the simplest TV UI, but here's a problem he didn't solve

Summary: When it comes to TVs, UI isn't everything.

TOPICS: Mobility, Apple, Hardware

The blogosphere is in an utter frenzy over the possibility that Apple has a TV in the pipeline.

My ZDNet blogging colleague Ed Bott says that 'high-definition TV is the inevitable next step in the natural evolution of the Apple ecosystem.' Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster (who has been going on and on about Apple making TVs for years now) says Apple is already building prototype TV sets and will be going all the way up to 50-inch TVs. Bloomberg is convinced that Jeff Robbin, who helped create the iPod and the iTunes media store, is working on TVs.

All this hyperventilation has been triggered by a claim made by Walter Isaccson in Steve Jobs' biography:

"'I'd like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use,' he told me. 'It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud.' No longer would users have to fiddle with complex remotes for DVD players and cable channels. 'It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.'"

Let's ignore a few things shall we. Let's ignore that the TV market is highly competitive and hugely cut-throat. Let's ignore the fact that TVs are low-margin commodities. Let's ignore that fact that Apple is highly secretive and it's highly unlikely that Jobs would have given any hint as to what Apple was working on. Let's ignore that fact that people don't get excited about TVs any more. Let's ignore that fact that big names like Google have tried, and essentially failed, to make any headway in the living room. Let's also ignore that fact that Apple already has a product with a simple interface that connects to any TV with an HDMI port. Let's ignore all that and focus on just one issue ... screen size.

Specifically, what screen size (or sizes) would Apple go for? See, Apple is all about simplification of the inventory channel ... there's three screen sizes for the MacBook Pro (13-inch, 15-inch and 17-inch), two screen sizes for the MacBook Air (11-inch and 13-inch), two screen sizes for the iMac (21.5-inch and 27-inch), one screen size for the iPad, one for the iPhone. It's simple. And that's the problem. When it comes to buying TVs, people have two metrics - How much is it, and will it fit in the space I have for it? This is why TV makers make TVs is a huge range of sizes. For example, if I confine my search to Toshiba LCD TVs, the company makes twenty different sets ranging from 22-inch to 55-inch. Samsung makes twenty-one different LED TVs ranging from 22-inch to 65-inch.

Conclusion ... people are fickle when it comes to their TVs. Now, I've no doubt that Apple could simplify things hugely, but even then you're looking at what, six or so screen sizes for each screen technology minimum. If Apple was willing to operate like that, we'd have a range of iMacs with different screen sizes. The fact that we don't have that speaks volumes.

See, I don't doubt that Apple isn't tinkering with TVs internally. It makes sense for the company to be doing that and filing patents along the way. It is more than possible that Steve Jobs came up with the perfect UI for a TV, but I find it hard to believe that he figured out a way to make people less fickle and size. Given everything I've outlined above, I find it hard to believe that Apple will come out with a TV in the next three years.

What do you think?

[poll id="704"]

Topics: Mobility, Apple, Hardware

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  • RE: Steve Jobs might have 'finally cracked' the simplest TV UI, but here's a problem he didn't solve

    It's not the TV that's hard to use it the cable box menus that is complex.
    • If you look at modern sets, its 'all of the above'

      @Randalllind: Some people still think of their TVs as a 'turn on and forget' device, ignoring or even forgetting that it had to be configured in the first place. Unlike the old UHF/VHF TVs where you turned it on, set the channel and clicked the clicker (or whatever style remote you had then) today you have to program it to local time, location, scan for cable channels, scan for satellite channels, digital over-the-air and who knows what else, plus white balance, image size... Good grief! Our TVs aren't simple televisions any more, they're bloomin' computers! And this doesn't even take that DVD/BlueRay/DVR and who knows what other A/V equipment you might have connected. How many remotes do YOU have sitting on your coffee table?

      Now, what if all those remotes could be replaced by a single touchpad or left-right-up-down-select 5-button remote that controlled every part of the system, no matter the brand or function? Maybe, just maybe, this is what Jobs was after. I, personally, think it is. Now, how would he do it?

      Well, let's take a look at some things already available:
      <b>* The Universal Remote:</b> Probably the best available system for the average consumer, but not even close to the easiest. Depending on type you either treated it like four or five separate remotes activated by a series of buttons identifying device type at the top or maybe one of those touch-screen LCD things that even had some ability to program macros to operate the entire system. The problem was that programming them initially was never easy and if you made one little mistake, had one item in your entertainment system out of synch, the whole thing was like trying to untangle a squid's tentacles as it slapped its suckers onto your hands. You had to manually reset each device to a default state (usually Off) and hope it catches everything back in synch when you trigger a function. (My mother had a bad habit of tipping the remote up long before it had finished sending its signals to eight different components!)
      <b>*Computerized Media Center (i.e.Windows Media or other media control system for your existing hardware):</b> For many, this is the ideal package. Everything is controlled by the computer itself, including channel selection, program guide, recording schedules and everything else. Usually it used a strong IR transmitter to blast the coded signals across the room to reflect back and seen by all the different components. Definitely more reliable than the hand-held Universal Remote, but now your dedicating an entire PC for one purpose and may still have an issue with missed signals by a component as someone walks in front of the system. It works, but is it really the best? You still have some pretty extensive programming to do and the average consumer really doesn't know how to handle it. Combined cost and setup may be more than a consumer wants to look at. Remember, they're easily confused by complex instructions and don't want to pay more than they have to for a 'set top' system.

      So what really is the best way? Well, what if it were possible for the TV to detect the devices attached or given a simple setup menu that asks "What device is in 'x' input?" Quickly enough it could determine all the possible viewing options and take full control of your entire entertainment system--including game console display--with a simple menu choice off the program guide page. Click "Watch channel (select number)" and you're watching TV. Click "Play xBox" to have game video on the display and audio either through built-in or external speakers. Click "Watch DVD" and it pops open your DVD player's tray and selects the proper input with no effort on your part.

      Logically it should be extremely simple, yet nobody up to now has really managed it. Has Jobs? I don't know, but if anyone could, I'd see him as the most likely to succeed first.
      • Some of that's already there


        Some HDTVs will automatically detect if there's a device plugged into an input jack. Usually you find this on a TV set with multiple inputs, though -- I don't mean "HDMI, Component, S-Video, composite, & coaxial"; I mean "5 HDMI, 3 component, 2 S-Video, 3 composite, & 3 coaxial". Some TVs also will let you put a custom label on a particular input, so that when the Input menu comes up you can find the particular input.

        However, as far as auto-detecting the *type* of appliance plugged into your TV... Apple won't be able to do that alone. Not unless they come out with new input hookup standards that allow the device to send more info to the TV set than just the audiovisual signal. And unless the other TV manufacturers get on board with that, I don't see the device manufacturers developing something just for 1 *potential* TV manufacturer.
      • You could be right, but...

        @vulpine@... : ... I happen to own one of the later model Samsung TVs that offers all of the above. The problem with it is that *I* have to tell it something is plugged into a given jack and then tell it what that something is--with the sole exception of the Samsung Blu-Ray player attached to one of the HDMI jacks. I have Satellite in both HDMI and Composite jacks, a Wii, a PS2 and an xBox 360 all tied to a Composite switch (to share audio as well as video, though the audio goes straight to my A/V receiver) and a first-generation Apple TV tied to yet another HDMI jack. I still have several jacks of both types still available. <br><br>However, wouldn't it be nice if I could tie the TV itself to the A/V receiver while all of those different game and video devices were simply connected to the TV and all I had to do was tell the TV what I wanted to interact with? Wouldn't it be nice if that one remote could control all of those devices for their individual entertainment capabilities so that all I needed was the TV remote and the separate game controllers instead of effectively 6 different remotes? The TV interface simply does not make it easy, nor does the satellite remote, though both supposedly have 'universal' capabilities.<br><br>Yes, things could still be easier, especially for the poor consumer who gets confused by all those plastic gadgets on his coffee table. Most of those devices have a processor chip inside that clearly announces down the data line the make, model and even the serial number of the device. This information easily comes up on screen from nearly every device (can't remember if my PS2 does or not) and as such would be quite easy for the proper software to pre-program itself to control every one of them and even detect which line the data came through. It really requires very little effort by the component manufacturers to make it even simpler. Why hasn't anyone else done it before? Because each and every one of them wants to force the user to use their proprietary data link and ONLY their own link. This is obvious with Sony, Panasonic, Samsung and virtually every other home entertainment component company in the market. Maybe Apple is a "walled garden" for its own devices, but they don't go out of their way to prevent other brands' devices from connecting. At least, not to their PCs.
      • RE: Steve Jobs might have 'finally cracked' the simplest TV UI, but here's a problem he didn't solve

        @vulpine@... <br>You must only be familiar with the cheaper universal remotes. Get yourself a $150 Logitech Harmony 1. Plug it into your computer, tell it which devices you have and how you use it. Logitech has a huge database which downloads that data for your devices to the remote. Instead of being device driven, it is task driven. On the touch screen I select "Watch Sattelite", "Listen to CD", "Watch TV", "Listen to Zune", etc. During the setup, you tell it for each task, how and from where you audio and video sources are for that device. <br><br>I used Logitech as an example (because I have a couple), but there are plenty of other universal remotes that use a similar system.
      • RE: Steve Jobs might have 'finally cracked' the simplest TV UI, but here's a problem he didn't solve

        @sgtm8: Believe it or not, I have, but you still have the issue that if you move the remote before the entire code train is transmitted, the system ends up out of synch and has to be manually reset before everything works as it should. I've seen it happen too many times.

        That $150 remote is still too complicated for a person whose VCR still blinks the time after all these years. And that's my point. It needs to work even for someone who is otherwise a technophobe. Nothing we have today offers that kind of control.
  • RE: Steve Jobs might have 'finally cracked' the simplest TV UI, but here's a problem he didn't solve

    Voice commands are pretty simple...
    "Xbox, play live TV."
  • RE: Steve Jobs might have 'finally cracked' the simplest TV UI, but here's a problem he didn't solve

    An Apple TV, eh? I don't know, TV's are pretty complex devices. After all, they can include 5 or more buttons. I'm not sure Apple can handle that. That might be too complex for Apple users. ;)
    The one and only, Cylon Centurion
    • RE: Steve Jobs might have 'finally cracked' the simplest TV UI, but here's a problem he didn't solve

      @Cylon Centurion
      Hehe, had to laugh! I needed a good laugh too! The other
      problem with an Apple TV---it would only get programming
      via iTunes, and all content would have to be approved
      ( censored, to be exact ) so as not to contain anything that
      could be considered questionable, you know, like Microsoft
      Windows ads, or Motorola Droid commercials!!
      • RE: Steve Jobs might have 'finally cracked' the simplest TV UI, but here's a problem he didn't solve

        @wizard57m@... Don't forget the lack of standard input ports, because no one wants to plug in doodads and make their sleek tv less portable!
    • You're just bitter

      because you didn't buy their stock 10 years ago.
      @Cylon Centurion
    • RE: Steve Jobs might have 'finally cracked' the simplest TV UI, but here's a problem he didn't solve

      @Cylon Centurion <br>This is how MS fans express their insecurity about Apple's momentum. I'll take that as a sign that companies that don't generate 90% of their profit from monopolies are winning.
      • And that's why I think WP7 is really a great OS


        The multiple threads by Apple fans fans against WP7 or it's users is far larger then what I would expect. I thinks it's just an expression of their insecurity about MS's momentum. I'll take that as a sign that Apple fans don't like having other people use something they feel is better the Apple branded.

        It goes with Apple TV too - just because someone may take issue against it, because TV is more the just an iTunes outlet to them doesn't dismiss their reasons for not buying it, or thinking it's a bad idea.

        And Jobs says "I've finally cracked it"? That sounds like a last minute, I'm writing a book, sales pitch to me.
        William Farrell
      • What company would that be?

        iPad - monopoly (using every metric other than shipping)
        iPod - monopoly (in everything)
        iPhone - monopoly (in profits)
        Mac - monopoly (PCs over $1,000)

        That easily covers 90% of Apple's profits.
      • RE: Steve Jobs might have 'finally cracked' the simplest TV UI, but here's a problem he didn't solve


        Can't take a joke?
        The one and only, Cylon Centurion
      • RE: Steve Jobs might have 'finally cracked' the simplest TV UI, but here's a problem he didn't solve


        Well let's see... Apple sells the hardware with it's own o/s, does everything they can to keep users from JB'ing the o/s, only allows Apple's iTunes software to be able to hook the hardware up to a computer (which by the way, you can't load Mac OS on any computer other than an Apple one), only allows purchases for media and apps to made through iTunes, controls which apps are available for sell and only gives the developers 30% of the proceeds of each sold app.

        Yeah, there's nothing monopolistic about that.
    • RE: Steve Jobs might have 'finally cracked' the simplest TV UI, but here's a problem he didn't solve

      @Cylon Centurion And don't forget, they have to play nice with all the different appliances (other brands) that connects with it.
  • RE: Steve Jobs might have 'finally cracked' the simplest TV UI, but here's a problem he didn't solve

    Doesn't really matter as you'll still need to use your Cable/Satellite provider's cable box (Basing this on the nasty messages I get coming through the wire when I try to access my cable with anything other than the box they gave me). And even assuming you can get it to work without one, people just won't pay for an Apple TV because of the other factor you missed here: price. TVs aren't really complicated at all. My 80 year old grandmother who has to ask me to turn on the computer for her can work through a TV guide well enough. You kind of hit the nail on the head with this article: people care about screen size. That's all that really matters. Occasionally you'll get someone like me who's in the market for something a little more specific (LED+120Hz) but for the majority of people, if it's big and cheap, it's good. If Apple wants to be competitive, they won't be getting those huge margins they love so much.
    • RE: Steve Jobs might have 'finally cracked' the simplest TV UI, but here's a problem he didn't solve


      I know it does not enjoy a great reputation, but my CableCard works pretty well. My Windows Media Player system can record, play or stream to my XBox a total of 4 different channels at a time without missing a beat, and my hardware specs are fairly moderate compared to today's standards. The only thing the CableCard cannot do is tune pay-per-view channels, however if Comcast follows through with its plans to offer On-Demand through the XBox that will solve that minor issue.

      If Apple can make a deal with the major cable companies in which the cable companies will cooperate with getting their services to work with Apple's hardware, whether it's through a CableCard or through some other internet service, Apple could have themselves a great product. That would mean, of course, that the cable companies would need a big piece of the pie.
      Michael Kelly
      • RE: Steve Jobs might have 'finally cracked' the simplest TV UI, but here's a problem he didn't solve

        @Michael Kelly I suspect it's your cable provider, not the box. I don't have a cable box and i can view digital channels except for pay-per-view (which doesn't interest me anyway).