The frenzy of HDMI dongles on the market or just announced reveals that Apple's competitors are taking the easy road and don't understand what customers really want in the world of TV.
It all starts with the opportunity to leverage from standardized silicon components from Asia. Throw together an HDMI + HDCP chip with Wi-Fi, some control logic and package it all in an inexpensive USB dongle and, hopefully, the maker has easy inroads into a customer's TV life.
For example, see "March Of The Google Chromecast Look-Alikes."
Of course, what's really going on is that each tech giant, Amazon, Apple and Google plus some others like Roku wants to sell its own unique brand of Internet-based TV to make a dumb TV smarter and offer salivating cord-cutting opportunities.
With these devices, several difficulties emerge right away. For example:
- Is all the customer's favorite content available?
- Of not, must it be supplemented from other sources, offsetting the initial low-cost benefits of the dongle?
- Does it support certain hardware features such as AirPlay? If not, are its own services problematic and perhaps not compatible with Apple products?
- HDMI dongles that plug into a TV directly and not an HDMI hub or Receiver are limited to the speakers built into the TV, generally bypassing a home theater's better speakers. (Unless the user is fairly savvy and the system supports special optical audio connections.)
- How many of these dongles does one need, and why should one have to constantly switch between sources to view specific content? And then one must look for the right remote to do that switching.
- Each new dongle requires an account and password, and personal information can potentially be tied to everything watched.
- What happens when a new HDMI dongle hits the market and the home system is out of HDMI inputs? Alternatively, if the customer wants to stick to just one or two, to whom do they owe their TV loyalty?
Speaking of loyalty, this is what it's all about with these dongles isn't it? In earlier times, the question was whether the viewer's loyalty was with a cable provider — hopefully there was a choice, but perhaps not so much these days. Or perhaps loyalty was with a satellite provider.
Now, in the era of Internet TV, the tech giants want to be the favored provider, and they see the HDMI dongle as their own special opportunity to lock the customer into their unique ecosphere of content. This is not technical progress, it's short-term quarterly earnings focus.
Behinds the scenes, what's driving this is the desire by the content providers to parcel out the goods to make sure that no one tech giant can dominate the market -- all the while maximizing their revenues. We've all heard stories about the difficulties Apple had locking up enough content deals to make a next generation TV system so compelling that the company could not only overwhelm the cable/satellite providers but also get a leg up on the Internet competition.
By and by the providers themselves may be eager to get into the game, given how easy it is. What's next? An HBO dongle? An NFL dongle?
The HDMI dongle is basically taking us from the frying pan to the fire.
Is this the Droid we were looking for?
Image credit: Google
Solving the Real Problem
The rush towards HDMI dongles doesn't do much to address the TV viewing experience. In some cases, the customers have to provide their own smartphone and download a remote control app. The content appears in the exact form the content provider wishes it to appear, and so it's merely a conduit to X amount of content, delivered by the latest, most fashionable, cheapest dongle, subject to all the limitations and aggravations in the bulleted list above.
Steve Jobs recognized that the TV industry could never really innovate so long as the cable and satellite providers leased out a dumb box with a TV guide grid. The same applies to these HDMI dongles. They're essentially cheap flypaper to rope the customer into a given ecosystem without a lot of value added.
Of course, as my colleagues at The Mac Observer have pointed out, if one of these tech giants were to secure exclusive rights to the NFL, it would be game over. And so there's an arms race on to capture the most number of customers and land that exclusive deal. It may be a pipe dream.
Critics of Apple may see the dizzying pace of HDMI dongles as a testament that Apple can't innovate. In reality, this frenetic approach doesn't fundamentally improve the TV discovery and watching process. That's something Apple is uniquely suited to do, and it's likely to cost more than US$35.
Book Excerpts Don't Solve Problems
Recently, there have been articles about how Steve Jobs said that Apple would never sell its own TV set. Jay Yarrow published a great report on that, but others have pointed out that Mr. Jobs also confided with his biographer, Walter Isaacson, that he also had a vision of an "integrated television" that would be easy to use.
It's convenient to embrace Mr. Jobs's remarks about low margins and long turnover periods for TV sets while ignoring the fact that one can conceive of a vision for an integrated system that fundamentally changes the TV viewing experience. To do that, Apple would likely have to build its own UHDTV with its own special brand of visionary hardware and software, connected directly to home Wi-Fi and bypassing HDMI. Obviously, if Apple just punted and made its own UHDTV with HDMI inputs, it would be an utter failure.
Similarly, for Apple to simply settle for a more miniaturized, 4th generation Apple TV and slug it out with the other HDMI dongles is not what I expect the brilliant people at Apple to settle for. Vertical integration encapsulated in awesome industrial design is what Sir Ive and team are famous for.
This is why I'm not giving up on the idea that Apple will make an awesomely beautiful 4K UHDTV with a curved screen, an awesome new way of controlling it (maybe like this, or maybe something better), and many new ideas about how to manipulate and present the video stream. (See for example, Google's use of facial recognition and info cards.)
HDMI dongles, low sales margins for ordinary TVs, long turnover periods of dumb TVs, and other makers' smart TVs are just excuses to avoid creative thinking about the next grand challenge. Apple likes to make money, but only because it changed the world first.
The HDMI dongle isn't the New Thing viewers need, and Apple's innovation shouldn't be evaluated based on that frenzied market. If Apple makes it's own vertically integrated, next generation, easy to use TV system that thrills us and makes a profit, that's success on Apple's own terms.