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

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?
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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