All hail the Apple Television – why Jobs’ timing may be immaculate

29 Aug 2011

All hail the Apple Television - why Jobs' timing may be immaculate

Expectations of an actual television – yes a TV set – to emerge from Apple have reached fever pitch as the news of Steve Jobs’ departure sinks in and as the industry seeks a gee-whizz moment that will help cement new CEO Tim Cook’s reputation as the next showman of tech.

It’s interesting how the coverage of Steve Jobs departure has shifted from the heady, giddy and almost obituary-like reportage and analysis of his decision to step aside as CEO to a new tone of almost hysterical fear as people rack their brains to see if another figure-head will emerge to set standards. “Who’s going to protect us from cheap and mediocre now?” asked one blogger.

It’s understandable. Steve Jobs’ sound judgement has set a benchmark for quality and integrity in a technology industry where personal computers and phones rapidly became commodity. There will always be a balancing act between defining the edge and at the same time ensuring everyone takes part in the revolution. You need a forerunner and Jobs filled that role to perfection.

I’ve always felt that someone in his prime like Steve Jobs should at least be able to relax, enjoy his good fortune and ultimately defeat that cancer that has haunted his life for the past few years.

Yet if the past 14 years have taught me anything about the man it’s that I think he will always want to play a role in product development and being appointed executive chairman is the perfect compromise, opportunity even.

You see, CEOs run businesses. They have to manage payrolls, supply chains, investors and that most difficult species of all, people. How Jobs did it while fighting cancer and inspiring product development and setting standards I’ll never know. But as executive chairman he’s likely to shine brighter than ever and just at the right time if indeed Apple does bring out its own television set.

The battle will be to keep technology products exciting

No company has embodied the ability to entertain us and wow us with new products as Apple has done since Jobs returned to the helm in 1997. Everyone else has reacted and copied Apple. And so in my view Jobs has long been the saviour of technology from mediocre commoditisation.

Products like the MacBook Air are cutting edge at a time when the personal computing industry has been bombing (Apple is the only manufacturer of computers currently growing. The iPod saved the digital music revolution from derailing itself. The iPhone appeared at a time when mobile phone saturation was complete but innovation was flagging. The iPad wasn’t the world’s first tablet computer, but it showed there was an appetite for simplicity and elegance as the mobile computing revolution begins to rage.

I think his timing will allow him to concentrate on a very difficult manoeuvre for Apple – how do you reinvent TV at a time when consumption styles are changing, are more social and on-demand, and the world is flooded with cheap, flat screen high-definition products?

“In his new role as Chairman of the Board, Steve will continue to serve Apple with his unique insights, creativity and inspiration,” Apple stated last week. And Jobs himself said: “I believe Apple’s brightest and most innovative days are ahead of it. And I look forward to watching and contributing to its success in a new role.”

To me that means he’s still going to engage in product development and could be freed up to concentrate on Apple’s next big game-changer. Whether he will return to the stage as a showman launching the next phases of products, including cloud-based iPods if the rumourmill is correct, is debatable.

But would not the launch of a game-changing new product be a great way to introduce new CEO Tim Cook to the showbiz side of things. Cook, who has proven himself as COO and well able to keep the Apple show on the road, is as a personality an unknown quantity for most watchers. But if Jobs’ judgement was involved then most of us will be satisfied with his choice.

The groundwork has been done for an Apple television

The Apple TV set top box technology has laid the ground-work, indeed the plumbing, for the content aspect and the potential for display can be seen in current high-end computers like the iMac. iTunes is a perfect way to buy content, the Apple TV set top box shows how wireless interoperability in the home works well with downloading movie content and the App Store and the Mac App Store for smartphones and PCs respectively lays the groundwork for the evolution of TV apps. Where better to enjoy games than in the living room. It’s also funny to think that this is really where Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak began, making games for the Atari console.

Whether Apple brings out a TV product this year or later next year, it has to be a game-changer. TV until now has been a sedentary activity and may long continue to be, but there is an appetite for content and interaction that extends well beyond bog standard electronic programme guides. People want to be social at the same time as they are watching the X Factor for example.

They want greater wireless interoperability between their smartphones and tablets and their TV. At CES this year Panasonic showed me how it was possible to wirelessly flick a video from a media tablet with your finger in the direction of the TV and the thumbnail would automatically begin playing on the bigger screen.

I sat in the aisles at CES and noted the CEO of Jason Kilar describe his future vision of TV (bear in mind Apple is believed to be one of the bidders for Hulu). “If you ask me what the future of TV is, I’ll tell you I’m 100pc confident that in a few years from now, eight-year-old kids will look at our current electronic programme guides (EPGs) and laugh and say ‘that was what TV was like in 2011.’”

Samsung earlier this year introduced transparent display technology that could again be a game-changer in how information is consumed and communicated as well as really visually attractive hardware.

And let’s not forget the amazing possiblities that gesture control technology that Microsoft’s Kinect for the Xbox 360, for example, could usher into a world where TV no longer has to be a sedentary experience.

So, Apple has the technological options it needs if it ever did decide to bring out an Apple-branded TV screen that commentators have been clamouring for as well as the plumbing in place for compelling content.

But let’s be clear. Apple has never said it will bring out a TV set – that has been wishful thinking by commentators (including myself). It’s just conjecture. But I remember people wondering if Apple would ever make a phone a long time ago and no one saw the iPad coming.

Apple may argue ‘why should we bother?’ Pop an iMac in the living room and it would do the job, would it not? Also, if Apple has begun figuring out such a product in terms of materials and supply chain, then we would have heard about it now from a giddy manufacturer in Taiwan, would we not?

All I’ll say is that if a TV is all our imaginations will allow as the next game-changer to come from the Cupertino innovation stable, it would be exactly the gee-whizz moment that would ease Tim Cook’s passage into the hottest job in the technology world. Let’s wait and see.

Below: Transparent TV technology from Samsung


John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years