Apple Won’t Make a TV, They Will Make a Better Cable Box

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From the “rumor that just won’t die department”, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that Apple is working with component suppliers in Asia to test several TV set designs. Not to dash everyone’s hopes for an iTV in the near future, but one source did say that “It isn’t a formal project yet. It is still in the early stage of testing,”. Maybe the pragmatic view is: “Yes, of course they are.” The truth is though, I don’t want an Apple TV, I want a better cable box and PVR and I think that’s how Apple can get TV to jump forward 30 years.

The Rumor of Something Apple Might Never Build

Sticking with the Apple-made TV rumor for now, the WSJ quote that got people madly typing about “what it all means” goes like this:

Officials at some of Apple’s suppliers, who declined to be named, said the Cupertino, Calif.-based company has been working on testing a few designs for a large-screen high-resolution TV.

Now for the dose of reality from later in the article:

Apple, which works with suppliers to test new designs all the time, has been testing various TV prototypes for a number of years, according to people familiar with the efforts. The company generally tests and develops products internally before doing so with outside suppliers.

I’m on side with Engadget that it is way, way too premature (regardless of what Gene Munster thinks) to start dreaming of an iTV in your living room:

Since this rumor will never die, and the hype will continue to flow when Apple and HDTV are mentioned in the same breath, we’ll spell it out for you one more time: no matter what they say or don’t say, Apple is — like nearly every other technology company — extremely interested in developing products for your living room. They were under Steve Jobs, they are with Tim Cook at the helm. Unfortunately, for reasons ranging from studio licensing agreements to DRM to a lack of access to pay-TV provider data/content, it’s very difficult to do with the level of polish and control of experience Apple would like. Microsoft and Sony are spending billions of dollars on their Xbox 360 and PS3 just to grab a foothold in this market, with varying levels of success, while Google’s TV project has experienced even tougher growing pains.

It’s not like Apple couldn’t make a bucket load of money selling TV, as folks like Fortune and MacRumors discussed yesterday, but it’s the possible strategies that people mull over that start getting much more interesting:

Further, Huberty lays out three strategies for Apple to fix television. The company could become a “full-blown virtual cable service provider”; partner with existing pay-TV carriers and replace their set-top box with its own; or Apple could “bundle the TV set with its existing Apple TV” box.

Which is where I’m going next.

It’s not the TV that’s broken, it’s how we interact with programming

When Tim Cook said that when he turns on the TV and he feels that he’s jumping back 20 or 30 years, do you really think he was talking about the device that displays the pictures? That’s pretty pedestrian. A screen is a screen. It accepts inputs from a variety of sources and makes them appear for us to watch. I don’t know how Apple can really improve on that. What Apple can fix, however, is how terrible it is to interact with the choice of programs.

This is what my cable box shows me when I hit the “Guide” button on my remote:

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And this is a look at some shows stored on my PVR:

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These are areas that Apple can fix. Let me mark some channels as favorites so I don’t have to scroll through channels that I never watch (I rarely venture into the SD channels—sub 200 in my listings), don’t offer channels that I’m not subscribed to, and when I look at the listings of the PVR, give me more info at a glance.

Apple understands how to display media and it also is getting pretty good at learning what people watch and how to suggest new things. Sure, with a TV you have the issue of many different people watching the TV and the conflict between viewing tastes, but maybe that could be fixed with people using an iOS device to control the box (remember it’s the box that changes channels, not the TV tuner) so your kids watching cartoons, your wife’s taste for rom-coms, and your preference for sci fi and action movies all stay separate. Why not? Connect multiple devices to the box and have “individual” and “family” modes.

This is the real jump forward that Tim Cook is looking at. Not the display device. The iPad, iPhone, Retina MacBooks aren’t just about the display, they are about the interface and TVs have no interface. Cable boxes have interfaces. PVRs have interfaces.

My bet is that Apple is working with cable companies not to license shows or programming, but seeing what it would take to offer a premium cable box that people can buy off the shelf and work with them.

That’s disruption, that’s being different, and I’m betting that’s were Apple is going.

Old TVs by Marcin Wichary from Flickr.

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