What was Steve Jobs's vision for the future of TV?

Steve Jobs “very much wanted to do for television sets what he had done for computers, music players, and phones: make them simple and elegant. ‘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.’”—Walter Isaacson

Steve Jobs wanted to revolutionize TV in the same way he had transformed music. On page 720 of his biography Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson asks Jobs about Apple’s plans for television, and Jobs seems quite enthusiastic. It would be an end run around the old ways of receiving TV through a cable subscription, and it would offer television programming directly to customers, on demand. “I finally cracked it,” Jobs says.

It all sounds exciting (“magical” even). Apple had irrevocably changed music and cell phones in the previous decade. What better target than the world of television, a fat cow waiting for a dramatic shake-up?

And who better than Jobs and Apple to reimagine how consuming TV should look and feel for the next generation? Even if Apple isn’t the company to put it into action, Jobs’s vision will no doubt provide the blueprint for the next wave of “new TV” companies.

Apple-flavored TV

So what would Jobs’s vision have looked like?

The biggest rumor held that Apple was going to launch its own line of flat-panel televisions, putting the company front and center in the home electronics arena. This never came to pass, and the idea remains stuck in the rumor mill. “As soon as next year” is a common refrain.

The vision, popularized by both speculative bloggers and professional analysts, is everything you’d expect from Apple—revolutionary, yet far from surprising. You would turn on your TV, and find something similar to iTunes. Hot shows would be promoted up top, and a robust search engine would let you find everything else. The key word is everything. You'd have access to current shows, classic TV, everything. You could download an individual episode, buy a full season pass, or stream shows in real time. You'd pay à la carte for all of it, and you'd no longer spend $80 a month on cable TV.

Some believe an Apple television might take its design cues from the iMac.

Of course, the hardware would be elegant above all, with the iMac as the natural design inspiration, but oversized for the living room. You’d get a simple remote (as with the current Apple TV), but you could use your iOS device instead. If you've paid a little extra for the “enhanced” version of The Walking Dead, you'd have no need to pause your TV watching with your iPad doing double duty as a TV guide, remote control, and “second screen.” Connections to Facebook, Twitter, and the like would let you get a picture-in-picture stream of gossip and commentary whenever you wanted it.

Naturally, Apple wouldn’t leave finding new shows to the masses. Editorial staff and a Genius-like recommendations engine would ensure that you’re never without fresh material to watch. A ratings system, such as the ones that Netflix or TiVo offer, would likely ensure that your voice is heard, too, basing future recommendations on what you tend to watch the most.

A set-top box?

Looking at Apple’s television business today, you’d be hard-pressed to say that the company has cracked anything at all when it comes to TV. Today Apple TV remains little more than a niche product for the company (Jobs called it a “hobby” in 2010), though Tim Cook recently said sales had doubled in the first half of 2012, with Apple moving 2.7 million units during that time. (By comparison, the company sold about 26 million iPads in the same period.)

But there’s evidence that Apple is plowing forward with television, despite all the obstacles. In August, the Wall Street Journal cited anonymous sources that suggested Apple was indeed working on a set-top box that would “simplify accessing and viewing programming and erase the distinction between live and on-demand content.”

The system would purportedly store shows on a cloud-based DVR service and be navigable via an icon-driven on-screen interface that mimics the iPad. And thanks to the cloud storage, content would be available on any (Apple) device. (The story discussed only a set-top box, not a full TV.) Commentary and sharing over Twitter and other social networks might also be included.

Details are vague, but the device outlined appears to follow the app-centric approach. For example, users would tap an MTV icon to find out what hijinks are going on up at the Jersey Shore this week, instead of accessing an iTunes-like catalog containing every TV show ever made. Could Apple live with this arrangement? It may have to if it wants to be a serious player in television.

Dealing with content owners

In fact, serious sacrifices to content owners like MTV and distributors such as Comcast might water down the vision considerably.

Putting together the necessary business deals and licensing agreements would be a very, very tough sell. For music, Jobs was able to make favorable licensing deals with record labels and publishers because piracy was already rampant, and the music industry was suffering.

But the TV industry is different. It has learned from the music industry's experience with the Internet, and it has gone to great lengths to control where and how video content becomes available. So the TV industry isn't as likely to cede that control to Apple's digital distribution system.

Jobs envisioned a service that serves live TV and streaming movies from the cloud to a variety of connected devices.

Sure enough, Apple has lots of TV programming for sale—it’s actually the far-and-away market leader in online episodic sales—but the availability is spotty. Some content is newly aired (mostly network TV), and some material is old stuff that hits when the DVD comes out (anything on HBO).

Many content providers don’t mind letting Apple sell individual episodes—$3 for an episode of Glee isn’t bad—but purchasing shows separately isn't the same experience as plopping down on the couch to watch a few sitcoms. Heck, it isn't even like watching Netflix’s Instant streaming service. Downloading shows one at a time and paying for them piecemeal is far from the seamless, integrated solution Jobs was envisioning.

To move toward Jobs's vision, Apple will have to convince networks and cable operators to give it access to real-time, present-day programming. That won’t be easy—and it may not be possible.

Kevin Boyland, a media industry analyst with IBISWorld, says that such deals with cable companies and content providers are the Achilles’ heel of the strategy. “Most people think a revamped Apple TV would be some sort of device with both live content and streaming from your Mac," he notes. "But cable providers want to control the access and user interface for that content, and companies like Comcast are actively and aggressively investing money in upgrading and rolling out their own user interfaces, so there’s a lot of reluctance for them to hand over control to Apple.”

In other words, the cable companies hate Apple, mainly because they saw what it did to the music industry.

Content compromise

What Apple could more easily get is a licensing deal with cable providers that lets existing customers access their cable service through Apple’s box. “That wouldn’t disrupt anything,” says Boyland. Essentially, that kind of strategy would amount to putting a Comcast app on your iPad, or doing a similar kind of deal to the one that cable outfits struck with NBC to stream the Olympics online.

Even if the idea did pan out, Apple would have to make a deal with every regional cable company to serve the whole country. It’s natural to ask next: Why not cut the cable companies out of the equation and deal directly with the content creators and distributors themselves? The reality today is that you can’t, because in many cases, the cable companies own the content creators—NBC and Universal, for instance, are part of Comcast, and Time Warner owns HBO. The tight integration of content with cable, says Boyland, now makes a successful reinvention of Apple TV “highly improbable.”

The iTunes store already has far more episodic TV shows than the other online stores, but you have to download them.

Dan Cryan, another TV-focused analyst with IHS, is more bullish on Apple’s prospects, noting, like Boyland, that the company has two choices: Go with an app-store model like the one described above, or make deals directly with content or cable companies to rebroadcast everything.

But in Cryan’s mind, an even larger challenge is how to take Apple TV international. The company has been increasingly focused on global launches, but the highly regional nature of television makes this task much more difficult than, say, launching an iPad in a dozen countries. “How do you sell U.S. TV into Europe? Into China?” he asks.

Regardless, Cryan believes Apple is up to the challenge. “I think this will come together in the future,” he says with confidence.

The problem with TVs

Even if Apple does figure out a way to get the content it needs—either through direct deals or an app strategy—then what? What kind of hardware might Apple launch to replace the $99 hockey puck (Apple TV) it’s selling now?

As noted, many people have speculated that Apple might launch its own Apple-branded television set with these services built in. Something like an iMac, sans computer.

That may happen, but it doesn’t quite mesh with Apple’s strategies to date. Says Boyland: “The typical Apple product life span is about two years. The typical TV has a life span of seven to eight years. Launching a TV just wouldn’t fit well with their market and upgrade approach.” The conventional wisdom seems to hold that Apple may make a go of it anyway. The potential rewards from taking over the home electronics aisles are just too great.

None of Apple’s future partners or competitors will talk about any of this. Representatives for Netflix, TiVo, Microsoft Xbox, and YouTube all politely declined to speak about what Apple’s vision for television might be. A Netflix spokesperson put their reason for declining comment rather eloquently, saying, “We can’t speak on behalf of Steve.”

Isaacson, Jobs’s biographer, also declined to elaborate on what Jobs might have been thinking. His publicist sent a statement reading: “Out of respect for Apple, [Isaacson] made a decision not to put in all of Steve Jobs's discussions with him about future products such as TV, and he doesn't want to add now to what he says in the book.”

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