Apple HDTV: a Winning, Beautiful Crystal Prison

| Hidden Dimensions

“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

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Ross Edwards

” The rest of the TV industry will be powerless to stop Apple?s entry now, even as they see it coming.”

No less true for the iOSX devices we already know about.  Look at the tablet frenzy, as every tech vendor threw whatever they could cobble together up against the wall hoping it would stick.  Apple got where it is today through a deliberate design and implementation process that started with the NeXT acquisition in the 1990s.  A company that wanted to KEEP UP with Apple would have to start now to conceivably have a chance at reaching full execution by around 2027.  NOTHING that Samsung, HP, Sony, Google, Microsoft, etc can smash together in a year or two has a prayer.  The closest we’ve seen is Amazon’s Kindle, and the device was trash but at least it tied to a content ecosystem that Amazon had been refining for a decade.

Gareth Harris

John, I’ve been thinking about this and the solution may be rather simple and indeed may be what SJ referred to himself. Apple could just press on to the final conclusion to their current path: the digital home network nexus. A device that coordinates all the gadgets - of which the TV screen is merely one amongst many.

This approach leverages what others have done and avoids fights over territory with low margins, such as TVs, which, like PCs, are mere commodities which have had all the margin squeezed out of them. So I say: avoid unnecessary fights. Don’t build TVs. The TV is just a peripheral monitor. All of them now have an HDMI interface. They are a commodity like disk drives. Just connect them to the nexus and connect the nexus to the net and iCloud. My TiVo, just like an Apple TV,  already does this, connecting to my Airport, iPad, iPhone, and Macbook Air. The solution is close at hand.

There is my answer: Develop the Apple TV or Airport hub or Mac mini into a network nexus. And make it possible to attach almost anything, including TVs, to it and let them interconnect.


Other fools have said it better than I:

So said Will and Steve and now says Tim?

Have more than thou showiest, Speak less than thou knowest,
And the usurped in industry mutter on as the Apple rampage continues?

I have no way, and therefore want no eyes; I stumbled when I saw: full oft ‘tis seen (and seen again and again) as Apple ?

Stands smiling to behold its lion’s whelp
Forage in blood of
- all their business.

Though I know your reference, John, it seems more a Crystal Palace or fortress whose panes are impervious to rock, recourse and resentment.


Apple could just press on to the final conclusion to their current path: the digital home network nexus.

Gareth ~ Are you suggesting iTV (or whatever) as a server?  If so, I think that’s a reach.  It might work well in an all-Apple household, but in a PC home, not so much.  But more than that ? and while it might be beautiful and simple ? I think just explaining it to the average customer would scare the key-rap out of him.


Apple HDTV its really awesome great colors, and its so beautiful

Gareth Harris

ijack - yes I am. But it might not be as scary as you suggest.

The server slips in as a sort of Trojan TV. Much less scary and nobody is afraid of a TV, which which everybody already has. And it is really presented as a PC with a TV interface and many inputs, including the iPad or iPhone plus your laptop or desktop.

People already accept routers and external drives. And many households have DVRs or apple TVs and other similar boxes and remote controls. Everyone is accustomed to shared files and networks, including web servers and email. It is time for an integration of all the clutter.


People already accept routers and external drives.
It is time for an integration of all the clutter.

That’s a good point, Gareth.  Getting rid of clutter is a part of Apple’s schtick philosophy.  If it turns out to be as you suggest, I’ll be very interested to see how they promote to Joe & Jane Average.


Great and apposite opening line, John, and one from one of my all-time favourite TV shows.

I think your reasoning is spot on, and in particular, the UNIX silo debacle is an illustrative object lesson for the TV industry, who, like a lone wildebeest caught out in the open, suddenly sees a lion in striking distance and about to pounce, and realises that there is not damned thing it can do about it.

This is in part because, thus far, with (almost) every device with which Apple have come out, certainly for the post-PC iOS devices, the attack on the industry has come from such an unanticipated direction that no one is prepared for it or can defend against it. Ranks are decimated, and troops are sent scattering.

Taking your arsenal list above, and with gareth’s and ijack’s sidebar discussion in mind, my only comment is that the one unifying theme, apart from best user experience (which is an outcome and not a product feature) that these disruptive devices all have in common is simplicity. It is the one feature that, if it solves a problems, renders that solution not only compelling, but elegant and brilliant - Einstein’s ‘E=mc2’ being a prime example. It has been the defining ingredient for Apple’s superior user experience, in those instances where they have prevailed.

While I have not followed the Apple TV progression with anywhere near the alacrity and zeal with which you and others have (not being much of a TV watcher), though I’ve been educated by it, I predict that, whatever the offering, when it comes, it will simplify the experience for the average user such that it will be approachable and non-intimidating. Like all of their current offerings, it will be a stand-alone solution that will only provide a richer user experience when integrated with the wider Apple ecosystem.

[EDIT] I should add, should the Apple TV fail to do this (simplify), then in my opinion, like MobileMe, it will not be disruptive and will not prevail.


While I have not followed the Apple TV progression with anywhere near the alacrity and zeal with which you and others have (not being much of a TV watcher)

Yep - having sorted out the technology - something Apple usually does with real style- it still comes down to content; or lack of it.

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