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David Zax

A View from David Zax

Your iPad Could Be Your TV

Or at least, the brains of it.

  • February 28, 2012

Wade Roush at Xconomy.com has an interesting post that takes a while to rev up, but once it does, arrives here:

I’m laying a bet, right here and now, that the days of the television as we know it—a standalone appliance with a built-in tuner, a goofy software interface, and an incomprehensible remote control—are numbered. Five or 10 years from now, if you have a TV in your house at all, it will simply be a dumb terminal, one of several devices that can “catch” the content that you “throw” to it from your main information hub. And that hub will be your tablet.

I have spent much time on this blog lamenting how frustrating and confusing TV is today. I hesitate even to use the word “TV,” because I’m not even entirely certain what that refers to anymore. Am I talking about the cable package I have, but hardly ever use, from Verizon? Am I talking about the Netflix app on my PS3 that I use much more often? Am I talking about the Hulu.com? HBO GO? Am I talking about TiVo, or Roku, or Apple TV, or Google TV, or any of the other so-called “smart TVs” with their 10-foot interfaces, or… are you even listening anymore?

I often end these laments with a hopeful mention of the famous Jobsian declaration that he had “finally cracked it!” (“It” being TV.)

What I didn’t realize, but what Wade Roush has illustrated for me, is that not only did Steve Jobs probably crack the problem of TV, but that he already developed and sold the device that may be the key to our problems. Like Poe’s purloined letter hiding in plain sight, the solution to our current TV UI/UX morass may be right under our noses, and may be the most exciting reason to get behind a product I’ve personally been dragging my feet on adopting: the iPad.

Before returning to Roush’s argument, I want to describe two recent transformations in the way I’ve been accessing content. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been wanting to listen to a lot more music, and I’ve been wanting to access a lot more of HBO’s back catalogue of dramas (I missed out on The Sopranos craze in a timely fashion). Much to my surprise, my iPhone, rather than my MacBook, has increasingly become the nexus of both these experiences. When I come home, I plug my iPhone into a sound system and stream Spotify music. And when I want to watch a back episode of Deadwood, I sometimes find myself accessing the HBO Go app on my iPhone, too, which for some reason has been less glitchy than running the site on my (rather old) laptop. I even began to investigate how I could stream HBO Go content from my iPhone to my television, but it appears HBO blocks this functionality for the time being, even if I were to buy an Apple TV.

The point is, when I want hassle-free access to a world of content, I’m finding myself turning to apps on my mobile device. This drift came about naturally, not because anyone told me to do so. And reading Roush’s post, I agree with him when he says, “I think moving TV content to the tablet is the best way out of the user-interface hell that is the modern connected TV—and I think it’s the path that Steve Jobs had in mind when he hinted cryptically to biographer Walter Isaacson that he had ‘finally cracked’ the problem of how to make televisions more Apple-like.”

Roush points us to a post by Mark Sigal, disputing the idea that Jobs’s Big Idea for TV was a piece of hardware. The thing is, we don’t really need innovation in TV hardware (and certainly not if it’ll cost us $8,000). We need innovation in TV software; we need the whole ecosystem of audiovisual content to be streamlined and simplified and made more readily accessible. Spotify did this for my music, where Rhapsody failed me; it created a single, elegant application that was easy to navigate and that grouped together content I already owned with content I could stream, all in a familiar, iTunes-like fashion. What is needed now is a Spotify for television, with the iPad (or even, potentially, iPhone) as its hub, and with AirPlay enabling streaming to a “dumb terminal” of a screen. If Apple’s truly ahead of the curve on this one, then the iTV won’t be a piece of hardware at all, but rather a piece of software: television’s killer app. 

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