Apple Will End the War of the TV Set-top Boxes

Black boxes for delivering video content are flooding the market, and, as fast as they appear, they're updated with new designs. Is it just a phase the industry is going through? Where is this all leading? More importantly, how can Apple differentiate itself?


At first, Google tried Google TV. The Kevin Bacon ads, as he sat with a keyboard, were so bad, we just knew the product would fail. And it did. Then came the Google Chromecast, a definite improvement. But now, it seems, Google isn't satisfied with Chromecast, and now we have rumors of "Android TV." It sounds like the "Let's see what sticks" department.

Meanwhile there have been millions of words written about the rumored next generation Apple TV project, many of which have been my own.

The feeling I'm getting from all this is that most of the tech giants don't really know where all this is going, and so they're inching along, blind, guided by just a few basic principles.

  • Keep developing Internet TV technology with custom content and advances in hardware until that "magic moment" happens, the mythical trigger point, the "Aha" moment when the solution captures the viewers in a powerful way. Perhaps we'll know it when we see it. Perhaps it's apps and games. Perhaps it's family FaceTime on the big screen. Perhaps it's something not yet conceived. The first one there wins. Maybe.
  • Along the way, develop improved, metrics of what people are watching and the products they want so that indirect advertising in other related channels becomes more effective. Win-win.

I see all these black boxes as a temporary phase the industry is going through. When there is no real vision for a larger solution, then the obvious course is to do what everyone else is doing and, along the way, hope that a happy combination of content and technology will provide the winning solution.

Nice for now, but not the Future of TV

What About the Customers?

Customers don't see it that way. First, it's long been known that TV viewers don't like lots of black boxes connected to their TVs. Going directly through the TV's HDMI ports, in general, creates technical problems with Dolby sound and it introduces the well-known TV bogeyman: Which device am I watching? How do I change to another device? What is the set of content on this device? Which device do I use to get to a specific program? Have I been seduced into paying too much for redundant content?

That bogeyman, in turn, leads customers to pick just one horse on a trial basis. Perhaps it's the one that has the content they're familiar with. Perhaps it's the one that's easiest to use. (As Google found out with Google TV's failure.) Perhaps it's loyalty to one company: Amazon and Fire TV, Apple and iOS or Google and Android. It seems a shame to be so constrained, doesn't it?

Uncertainty about being able to get all the content customers want and fear of losing their connection to live sports, still the ace on the hole for cable and satellite, has so far led to these little black boxes being a supplemental experience -- not a complete substitute.

Cord cutting, despite the hype, remains a very isolated "1 percent" phenomenon, as Philip Swann at TV Predictions has pointed out on many occasions.

As a result, I see these efforts as an attempt to appeal to a technical minority with the desperate hope that the technology will trickle down to the masses. That's not a good bet. We know that because of Apple's history.  For example, the iPod wasn't a trickle down technology.  It was an instant cutural phenomenon.

The Big Picture

Exactly none of the current efforts are designed to address the pain points of consumers. Dazzling them with smaller and smaller, ever changing devices is a dead end. Offering special, original content makes for dazzling promotions, but it leaves the viewer with the uncomfortable feeling that if they embrace the new, they'll have to give up the accustomed. There is pain with too much choice.

In addition, the current efforts have been on the hardware performance (but not its physical form) and the content. Very little work has been done in improving the actual viewing experience, both with the hardware and software. That's the magical, indescribable, technical unknown of our time. That is, what are the true viewer pain points now and where do we want to get to in the future?

One way for Apple to proceed is to think deeply about the viewing experience and make all the little black boxes irrelevant. I doubt that Apple's ultimate goal is to build just another next generation Apple TV, undistinguished and indistinguishable from the competitors. By fundamentally improving the experience, the details of content and the spec war of the little black boxes goes away. The situation reminds me of the transition from DOS to the Mac's mouse and GUI in 1984. Or the sea change in how we got on the Internet with the early iMac in 1998.

I have always maintained that in order for Apple to fundamentally improve TV viewing, it has to control the entire experience. That probably means making the whole widget: the on-screen experience, the display hardware, the electronics and the user control interface. Everything.  Just like the iMac commercial above.

We don't shop for modems anymore. There's no market for those little boxes that got smaller and faster. The experience was rolled into the innards of our Macs. And so this is the challenge for Apple. Make all those little black boxes irrelevant and change the world.