More Thoughts on Apple, HDTV, and iRemote


Analysts have been claiming that Apple is going to develop an HDTV for years. Basically, ever since the  dawn of HDTV and the rise of Apple. 

Apple, for what it's worth, has made it clear that they'd like to be a fixture in the living room. 

They introduced the AppleTV for exactly that purpose. And they've sold millions. 

I've owned all three versions of the AppleTV. 

And I believe that the changing nature of the AppleTV device - both in what it does, and how it's controlled - provides us with some clues about how Apple intends to proceed in the living room space. 

And it doesn't point toward Apple developing an HDTV. 

Apple As Consumer Electronics Developer

There is definitely merit to the idea of "owning" the living room, and Apple certainly seems to have designs on that space. 

I think that's a great idea. I just don't necessarily think it follows that Apple needs to get into the consumer electronics business. 

Ten years ago, there was a clear dividing line between "computers" and "consumer electronics". That line has gotten very blurred in the last half-decade, and that's largely because of the efforts of Apple. 

You could say - probably accurately - that Apple is already a huge consumer electronics developer. Aren't iPhones and iPads consumer electronics?

For the purposes of this article, when I say "consumer electronics", I'm referring to the traditional sense of the word - HDTVs. Blu-ray players. AV receivers. Set-top TV boxes. And yes, even game consoles. (Even though today's consoles are definitely computers in the literal sense, under the hood.) 

Thanks to Apple, we carry powerful computers in our pockets now, and use them in the living room to control our TVs and satellite radio, and all manner of other devices. 

If you have an AppleTV (which I'd probably call a "consumer electronics" device), you probably got it because it's such a great accessory for the iPad (which is definitely a "computer" - albeit a completely new kind.)

The AppleTV Evolution - from Storage Locker to Gateway

The AppleTV started out as an "iPod for your TV". It was a hard drive, used to store a copy of your music and movies, and provide access to the iTunes Music Store. 

The original AppleTV was controlled by actively navigating menus with a tiny white plastic remote control. The original AppleTV was another content source - competing with your CD and DVD collection. 

With the 2nd and 3rd generation, the AppleTV has evolved into a streaming media box. The AppleTV is no longer a content source, and its purpose is no longer to store your media. Its purpose is simply to transport your media to your living room
 via AirPlay.

Today's AppleTV is generally controlled via an iPad, because the iPad is, frankly, the best tool for content management the world has ever seen. 

We dial up what we want to see on the iPad, we AirPlay it to the AppleTV, and it just.... happens. Actively navigating through menus on the TV is no longer necessary. 

In fact, the entire AppleTV OS is quickly becoming a "fallback" that you almost never need to access. We can rent and stream iTunes movies, access our music and start playlists, and search for and play YouTube videos, all from the iPad interface.

What About the Apple HDTV?

Based upon the evolution of the AppleTV, it seems that Apple sees the TV set as a "dumb" screen - a place to view your content, rather than to store or interact with it. 

This is in keeping with Jakob Nielsen's description of the TV as a "lean back", or passive experience, rather than the "lean forward" screens we use to actively interact with data - such as computers, tablets, even phones.

If Apple ultimately views the TV as a "lean back" experience, then I don't see the necessity, the purpose... or most importantly, the profitability of Apple developing their own HDTV screen. 

The functionality we've discussed - and any future content delivery Apple may be envisioning - can be delivered with the current AppleTV concept.

So why would Apple go to the trouble of entering the HDTV market?

When I got to buy an HDTV, I'm generally looking at an array of 1080p LED screens, at uniform sizes, from different consumer electronics brands. Most of those brands get their components from the same sources. 

The primary differentiator is price, and the secondary differentiators are awfully secondary. They are the brand name, minor variants in bezel & design, and certain proprietary capabilities. For example, I may purchase a Sony HDTV because I have a Sony receiver, and I like the Bravia sync single-remote capabilities. 

But really, we're looking at the price. 

It's not clear that an Apple HDTV would provide the margins that Apple currently enjoys and expects on their computer products. In fact, the exact opposite is indicated. It would be nearly impossible for an Apple HDTV to sell with the current "Apple Premium" baked into the price. 

The Apple HDTV would probably have the current AppleTV functionality baked in, but it would not, in all likelihood, have its own "TV operating system", ala TiVo using CableCARD to deliver a proprietary UI for cableco content. 

When you'd look at the Apple HDTV, you would typically be looking at your consumer electronics interfaces - be it DirecTV's UI, or your Blu-Ray player menus.

The Apple HDTV would almost certainly be another 1080p screen, with components produced by a major LED screen maker, with an Apple logo on the front, and a very, very pretty aluminum/glass design. 

Would you pay $3,000 for a 55" Apple HDTV - when an equivalent Sony is going for $2,000? It's doubtful. Even for Apple fans. 

Apple as Consumer Electronics Catalyst  

That doesn't mean that "all is lost" for Apple's foray into the living room. In fact, the opposite is true. 

Moving forward, it doesn't matter that Apple actually produces the consumer electronics in our home theater. Apple can own the ecosystem by providing a vastly simplified method for us to interact with those consumer electronics devices, regardless of their producer. 

Content Management is Key

In a recent discussion I took part in on AppleInsider, poster "Mr. Me" noted that "most homes have access to more content than they can manage. The great problem to be solved is content management. This is where Apple has an enormous role to play." 

I couldn't agree more. I have hundreds of gigabytes of music, terabytes of DVDs & blu-rays, and DVRs filled with recorded TV physically located in my home. 

More to the point, via the internet, we all have access to essentially every work of music, film and television ever created - and available instantly.  

I don't need an access to more content. Content management is the key. 

I don't want to have to navigate between my libraries and Netflix and Amazon and iTunes on my HDTV. I want to be able to access all of those sources of content from an "active" device in my hand, press a button, and have that content playing on my HDTV.

I need an iRemote.

iRemote - The Best Part Is, You Probably Already Own It

If the goal is "universal, simplified content management", then the way forward is clear. 

Apple should enter and occupy the universal remote control space - making everyone else's consumer electronics controllable with Apple devices. 

Remote Control is a market that is begging for a single set of standards. Apple has the clout and the cachet to lead in this area - and to make the consumer electronics industry follow along and make their products compatible. They've demonstrated this in the past, with AirPlay (and before that, with iPod).  

If Apple promulgated a single "iRemote" standard and got 1-2 major component makers on board, it would be a very short time before "Works With iRemote" stickers were on everything at Best Buy.

At the moment, the universal remote space is intimidating and cluttered. There are are a number of consumer-level universal remotes (Harmony, etc.), and a number of pro-install only universal remotes. 

None of these systems really work all that well, they're complicated, and they are really expensive.  

This is a perfect situation for Apple. It's a tech market that is begging for homogenization, and there are literally millions of devices already in homes (iPads, iPad Minis, and even iPhones) that are capable of becoming Apple "Universal Remotes". 

And based on their stock woes, Apple could use a new world to conquer right now. 

iRemote - A Platform, not an App

In the iRemote world, while the HDTV will remain the focal point of the home theater, the iOS "iRemote" device becomes the primary method for interacting with and managing our content. 

In most cases, the iRemote will be an iPad. 

Apple could, of course, develop and sell dedicated iRemote hardware - and I'm sure that would be a large part of the profit motive - but widespread adoption will largely turn on the fact that most users already have iRemote hardware in their homes.

As "Mr. Me" noted, the real differentiator for a network-based iRemote would be two-way communication between the remote and the component. 

With a typical remote, the remote sends commands, and the component responds. With iRemote, the component can "talk back". 

This 2-way communication makes it possible to pair components with their remotes, the way you currently pair your iPad with your AppleTV. (After all, we don't want everyone with an iPhone to be able to change the channel on our TV at any time.)

Two-way communication makes it possible for our components (and the internet) to send information to the iRemote. The component would be able to tell the remote that it is currently "on", and to skip that command in a macro. 

Each component could send playlist, OnDemand, and TV guide data, or - as demonstrated really well with the DirecTV app - the top 5 most watched programs at that moment, or sports scores, with the option to change to that game or program. 

Here's a modest proposal for the way forward:

1. Create an open remote-control platform / app.   Call it "iRemote". This would be a single, overarching app for remote control for any wifi-enabled components - with an open API, so that third parties could develop modules which would seamlessly integrate into the iRemote application. 

This isn't a difficult proposition - most major consumer electronics companies already have their own standalone apps. (DirecTV, TiVo, Comcast, FiOS, Sirius, insteon/crestron/lutron lighting come to mind.) 

Those apps are all useful - and they're occasionally trancendent, like DirecTV's iPad app - but switching between them is a pain. This would simply bring them into the same unified interface. 

2. Build IR/RF capabilities into the next-gen iPad Mini. This would be a differentiator for the product, would allow iRemote to work with existing CE components, and would create a compelling reason to own both an iPad and a mini. 

3. Purchase Logitech's Harmony division. As I've said before, I'm not sure that this is necessary, but it would presumably provide some patents, and would definitely provide some "heat" for Wall Street - it would conclusively demonstrate Apple's intent to make this more than a hobby.

We all know that Apple has had designs on the living room for a long time. When every component in your living room is being controlled with an iDevice, they'll be most of the way there. 

If they aren't already moving in this direction, they should be. If Apple ignores this opportunity, it's only a matter of time until some third-party developer uses their platform to seize the universal remote market.  


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