Apple HDTV: a Winning, Beautiful Crystal Prison

“There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission…. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical.” — Opening narration, The Outer Limits (1963-65)

Now that the rumors are flying about a new platform, an Apple HDTV with a new TV OS, based on iOS, and a potential platform for developers, I started thinking about four key weapons Apple has with the so-called Apple HDTV.

Total Industry Disruption

Beautiful prison?It goes without saying that this is exactly the kind of disruption Apple pulled off with the smartphone market. Before the iPhone, the standard feature phone was controlled by the carrier. It had the carrier’s name on it, and there was very little you could do to modify it. The original manufacturer sunk into the background, was squeezed financially, and therefore had limited resources to advance the state of the art.

With the iPhone, the manufacturer’s name is on it, and the customer partners with Apple and its products and developers to manage the iPhone. The carrier merely provides the network.

An Apple HDTV with the same kind of relationship to the customer, again, provides user control, opportunities for developers and turns the cable company into a bandwidth provider. (Sorry, DIRECTV and Dish. You’re not ISPs. The tide has turned back to cable.)

That should all work nicely, just like it worked with the iPhone.

Technology Burst

Currently, HDTVs are a commodity market. They more or less all work the same and make concessions to the nature of the content being delivered by the providers. Small things, gimmicks, are thrown in to differentiate by confusing the customer or glossing over the practical details. 3D was thrown against the consumer wall to see if it would stick — and panic customers into buying a new HDTV prematurely. It didn’t work.

So the question is, what would happen if Apple were to unleash its own brand of vision and technology development in the TV world. What components would we see invoked?

  • Apps
  • Siri
  • iOS
  • Flash memory
  • 802.11ac
  • AirPlay
  • A better remote app
  • Integration with iTunes
  • Thunderbolt
  • That oh-so famous Jonathan Ive industrial design

It boggles the mind to think about how Apple could combine all that technology for the benefit of the customers. These are technologies that have been ignored because the TV makers are so busy competing in the current cut-throat market, they can’t afford to invest in technologies that depart from industry norms and which would require massive infrastructure (iCloud, iTunes).

It’s Happened Before

There’s a lesson from the recent past that bears on this. Back in the late 1980s, early 1990s, five UNIX vendors had their own platforms, processors, and UNIX flavor. And they ruled. IBM had the POWER CPU and AIX. Sun had the Sparc CPU and Solaris. SGI had the MIPS CPU and Irix. DEC had the Alpha CPU and Ultrix/OSF/Tru64/DEC Unix. And Hewlett Packard had the Itanium and HP/UX. All these variants fought tooth and nail for the workstation market back when Windows was still somewhat of a joke compared to UNIX.

There were some meager attempts by the “five” at commonality. The vendors, sensing the looming threat from Microsoft, cooked up the Common Desktop Environment (CDE). Some source code was able to be cross-compiled, with tweaks. But the bottom line was that each company was so entrenched in its products and customer base that, as a group, they were ripe for disruption. CDE was a bust.

Windows NT, released in 1993 by Microsoft, was that disruption. It more or less destroyed the desktop UNIX workstation industry. The “five” were powerless to stop Microsoft. The systems and UNIX variants I listed above have either passed into history or become backwater holdouts for a very few government and enterprise customers. DEC is no more, Sun was sold, and the UNIX menagerie has generally been replaced by Linux in the mainstream.

I see the TV industry in the same boat. There is commonality in connectivity (HDMI) just as there was with the UNIX workstations (Ethernet), but the products are simply conduits for a mishmash of user interfaces designed by the providers, for the providers agenda. And those UIs provide nothing in the way of customer control, developer opportunity, or insanely great focus on the customer.

Apple TV

The Crystal Prison Wins

These so-called Crystal Prisons work because one company, be it Microsoft or Apple, comes along with a unifying vision. Everyone asks afterwards, “Why couldn’t the industry solve its problem before one company comes along to unify it all — and steal the market?” Of course, it’s because each company is too busy struggling, hanging on by a thread, trying to gain a foothold in quicksand.

The Crystal Prison wins because customers are tired of every company, small and large, throwing disparate stuff out there, trying to lure us into a technical menagerie. The family of iOS products works well together, anchored by iCloud. A new member of the iOS family, the Apple HDTV, (dare we call it “MyTV”?) will be most welcome. Or welcome enough for Apple to add yet more billions in sales per quarter.

The glimpses we’ve had so far start to form a compelling picture. Despite Tim Cook’s vow to “double-down” on product secrecy, the available weapons are clear: disruption, unification, technology vision, customer control, and developer opportunity. The rest of the TV industry will be powerless to stop Apple’s entry now, even as they see it coming.


Image Credit: Modern TV, Shutterstock