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How iTV Will Kill Cable: The Long, Slow Way

How iTV Will Kill Cable: The Long, Slow Way

Digg Cofounder Kevin Rose says Apple's getting ready to deliver something called "iTV" -- and that it will change the way you watch the boob tube. It's only natural to have great expectations for disruption when Apple comes out with a Big New Thing, and Cupertino may well manage to change the game on cable companies eventually. Just don't expect it all to happen right off the bat.

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
08/24/10 5:00 AM PT

I'm a big fan of sunshine and the outdoors, but I'm anxiously awaiting September and the indoor tech gadget screen time it now represents to me.

Why? Since Apple first introduced the iPad nano in September of 2005, the company has delivered a new iPod and some raging new features to its iTunes ecosystem around that time every year. Big announcements. This September will be no different. We'll inevitably see a cool new addition to the iPod lineup, most certainly an iPod touch with a built-in camera -- finally! Might it be FaceTime-capable? Who knows, but maybe.

Either way, there's something far more groundbreaking brewing in Apple's Cupertino headquarters, and it just might be an iPod-sized Apple TV device. Dubbed "iTV" by a good many bloggers, the wide expectations are for an update to Apple TV that will let it run the iOS operating system like the iPod, iPad and iPhone. This makes a certain amount of sense, mostly because the aging Apple TV interface/operating system has been largely ignored for years by Apple.

Sure, it shares more with Mac OS X than iOS right now, but if Apple were trying to make a big change to the living room experience, it's hard to imagine the company ignoring its astoundingly successful App Store ecosystem. If Apple can bring developers to the living room and make many of its apps available on HDTVs, it stands a chance to capitalize on its iPhone/iPod/iPad success and completely permeate the average household's important areas of consumer technology.

Cut to Kevin Rose

So the plugged-in Kevin Rose, founder of Digg and an angel technology investor, made a short-but-interesting -- and widely cited -- blog post about how Apple's "iTV" will change everything. He's definitely headed in the right direction, but since I've been a huge Apple TV fan since day one, I can't help but chime in, especially because Rose's predictions have been amped up with a variety of cross-linking headlines that suggest the looming destruction of the cable and satellite TV industry.

First, he says we should expect to see iOS TV applications -- right on! It would be hard to imagine Apple not eventually bringing its app ecosystem to as many distribution channels as possible, if not create a new area. This fall? Maybe. Right now, I'd say it's more likely that we'll see a cheap new Apple TV device paired with some new subscription models for existing content from the major broadcast networks -- some new spin on getting great content, and "great content" is clearly something Jobs cares about. (Think Pixar, think about the content he chooses to highlight when he unveils nifty new products. With Steve Jobs, I'd hazard to say content quality is top of mind.)

The problem with an iTV running apps is the input device. Apps are about sight -- touching and tapping. They aren't currently about mousing with pointers. So how might Apple make the switch -- or conversion -- of existing Apple TV goodness with an iTV device for running apps? You can use your iPod touch, iPad or iPhone as a remote for your Apple TV right now, and it's feasible to consider that you could use such a device to run apps on an iTV -- utilizing the accelerometer, for example, and touch interface. It'll be a challenge to figure out, and I don't doubt Apple could do it if it wanted to, plus whip up some 30-second commercials to explain it all simply enough.

But Apple doesn't need to do it yet, so I don't think they will (though I hope Apple will, nonetheless).

If I were to bet on it, I'd say Apple is far more likely to deliver some new consumption model for existing content -- a subscription service for TV shows, for example. Such a model would be far less threatening to TV producers and network owners than having Apple Apptize the TV like it's trying to do with print content with the iPad. Along the lines of the subscription, maybe Apple will start offering streaming services instead of the downloadable services. Remember Lala.com, the streaming music service from the clouds? What about Apple's massive new data center it's building in North Carolina? Apple's going to do something with them, and it'll be content-related.

I think there's a better chance that we'll see some sort of App option for an iTV mid-2011, after the holidays, with a lot more detail next June when Apple will likely hold its Worldwide Developers Conference. So are apps for an iTV coming? Definitely. Soon? Apple has surprised the world many times, but I think Jobs has had a hard enough time navigating the wary TV licensing and production world to get better distribution contracts in place.

Destroying Cable and the Satellites

How about the prediction of the coming destruction of the cable and satellite industry? Sure, it's faltering and has been for years, but Apple won't be the cause of it.

Right now, cable and satellite produce an odd combination of freakishly powerful, convenient, easy and astoundingly difficult programming options. On the one hand, your consumer DVR device is pretty awesome. Pause, rewind live TV, easy recording, timers, etc. I would say that most consumers who use their DVRs consistently will find it hard to give them up and imagine something better. I can set my Dish Network DVR to record "The Good Guys" and walk away. If I have the time, I can watch it the moment it's broadcast, or I can catch it later. Sure, getting it mobile to my iPhone is a pain -- I have to shell out for Dish's Slingbox and app, and maybe some connectivity pieces, but it's possible. And Dish is getting smarter: Its new ViP 922 Slingloaded DVR features built-in Slingbox tech, making it easier for new customers who snag one of these units to get started.

At the same time, at most households I visit, I see a lot of wasted and confusing scrolling through channel listings as owners and their guests try to find shows worth watching -- 900-plus channels? That's a mess. Sure, you can create a listing of favorite channels and avoid all the channels you don't want to subscribe to, but still, it's a pain to do it. Hence, one example of the DVR-driven cable and satellite world being far too stupid for its own good.

On the flip side, we're a long way from cutting the cable umbilical cord. Sure, I can watch a lot of TV shows via iTunes, but the overall value of cable and satellite service is pretty high for the number of hours your average family uses their HDTVs. Besides, given the choice between a sucky Internet TV stream and a crystal-clear HDTV show delivered by my satellite service, I'm happy to watch via traditional network TV sources. And we haven't even gotten to live sporting events, which are still best viewed via traditional HDTV broadcast methods.

Loving and Hating the Commercial

More than any iTV, the big catalyst for change will be how commercials are delivered and consumed. That's where the money is. I'm guessing that many broadcast companies are looking at US$1.99 episodes on iTunes, a free Hulu with ads that weren't profitable, and are still scratching their heads. There's no easy transition to profitability for many of their shows that are currently profitable on broadcast TV.

If content is king, and as long as kids still have 30-minute attention spans, making fantastic content profitable will be the key to "changing everything."

Rose also covers the picture- and video-sharing angle to the iTV, and I agree -- I've seen grandmothers get excited about the Apple TV just so they can use it as a virtual photo album. The ability to use your Apple TV to show off home videos and share slideshows from your latest vacation (for me, it's the latest backpacking trip) is just wicked cool. No way around it. If I could wirelessly transfer my iPhone 4 photos and videos to my iTV, I would be a happy man.

As for the iPad being a big, badass remote, sure, it'll be that, but as long as it's $500, it won't be the "preferred" input device, as Rose suggests. An aging iPod touch will be far more likely to be relegated to remote control status, especially in households with kids. Swap out the word "preferred" with "best," and I'm entirely on board with the iPad as a remote.

So, Changing Everything?

Definitely. Just don't get too excited about the speed of change, even when Apple is in the driver's seat. Sure, Apple has the capability to surprise the world, but it also has puzzlingly slow rollouts sometimes.

Case in point: no camera on the iPad or even the aging iPod touch. If Apple doesn't have to deliver a feature, I think they hold it back to tack on later, sparking a new reason to buy or upgrade. We'll see similar room for improvement in any new iTV Apple might announce.


MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at Gmail.com.


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