Rumours abound about the possibility of an Apple television display, or at least a large screen designed for viewing video. There is speculation that it could feature voice or gesture control, and it seems likely it would feature applications. One thing seems certain: an Apple display could revolutionise the way we view and interact with television.
“I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use,” Steve Jobs told his authorised biographer Walter Isaacson in one of his last interviews. “It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud.” He said: “It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.”
The biography also reveals the significance to Apple, and to Steve Jobs and his legacy, of the British industrial designer Jony Ive. He and his team were responsible for the design of iconic Apple products from the MacBook to the iPod, iPhone and iPad. If anyone knows about plans for an Apple TV product, it may be him.
Born in Chingford, North London, Jonathan Ive went to secondary school in Stafford and then studied industrial design at Newcastle Polytechnic before co-founding the design agency Tangerine, from where he was recruited by Apple in 1992.
Steve Jobs described Jony as his spiritual partner at Apple and they shared a design philosophy and aesthetic that helped to transform the fortunes of the company.
While modest and unassuming, even when he featured in Apple keynote launches, Jony may have felt that with his own passionate obsession with the design of Apple products, Steve may have taken some of the credit. Yet both are named in many of the patents that protect Apple products.
Assuming that Apple enters the television market it is likely to a redefine it, in the same way the iPhone reimagined the smart phone, or create a new category, as it did with the iPad.
“You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential,” Jony told Walter Isaacson. For a television that essence would surely subsist in the screen and its relationship to the viewer.
There have been reports that Sharp may be preparing to produce flat screen panels for such a product. It has even been suggested that it could come in three sizes, including 32 inch and 55 inch screens.
Sharp is the fifth ranked flat-panel television manufacturer by revenues, according to DisplaySearch, and is also a major supplier to other brands. Its factories can produce panels for screens of 60 inches or more. Its largest screen is currently 80 inches across the diagonal.
Kozo Takahashi, head of North and South American operations for Sharp certainly was not giving anything away when asked about the quote from the Steve Jobs biography. “I really have no idea what kind of TV it will be,” he said. “But if he came up with it, I’m sure it will be amazing.”
For decades, the infrared remote control has defined our interface with the television screen. By putting more intelligence in the screen there is the opportunity to create a more natural interface.
The latest iPhone features a voice recognition application called Siri. Apple has also filed patents for gesture control. Such approaches are not without their challenges in the living room environment.
Powering this is likely to be an ARM processor, capable of running sophisticated applications, like an iPad. Some have suggested that it already has a device codename J33 in the latest release of the iOS operating system, although that could relate to a new version of the Apple TV.
Furthermore, by linking to secondary screens and input devices, like the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch, there is scope for considerable improvement on the current user experience.
If Apple does come up with a television screen it will no doubt be more successful than its first computer-television integration, the Macintosh TV. That allowed users to switch its built-in 14” Sony Trinitron tube display to show television pictures. Only 10,000 were made between 1993 and 1994 before it was discontinued.
The problem with a television product is that it does not exist in isolation from a complex market of broadcasters, networks and platform operators. As Google discovered with its first foray into television, it is a delicate ecosystem that does not welcome disruption.
The suggestion that this latest attempt to integrate the computer and the television could be dubbed the Apple iTV, following the naming of the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, has produced a predictably prickly response from the British broadcaster ITV.
“ITV is an extremely strong brand and a household name in the UK, established more than 50 years ago,” said a company representative. “We highly value our intellectual property rights and hold a large number of registered trade marks for both the ITV name and our logos.”
When Apple first announced plans for its media player device in 2006 it was referred to as Apple iTV but it launched in January 2007 as Apple TV, possibly in deference to ITV plc.
We would not be surprised if Apple came up with a different name, like iScreen, to distinguish it from the traditional television experience.
Indeed, it is possible that the product will not be a television in the sense of having a conventional tuner, requiring different receiver specifications for different territories. Instead, it could simply have one or more digital inputs, such as HDMI or Thunderbolt, allowing connection to third-party set-top box to receive television signals or pay-television services.
The Apple differentiation would come from an intuitive user experience and integration with iTunes and potentially apps. It would no doubt seamlessly integrate with the Apple ecosystem, with innovations such as Apple AirPlay allowing audio and video output to be redirected between iOS devices.
While the television display market is extremely competitive and margins are as thin as the screens themselves, an Apple product is likely to be positioned as a high-end product at a premium price point.
That did not prevent Apple from revolutionizing the smart phone market, with a devastating effect on companies like Nokia.
The availability of an Apple television would probably have people queuing around the block, which is enough to worry other television manufacturers.
Apple would not need to take much market share to make an impact. With a 4.2% share of the global smart phone market among the eight leading manufacturers, according to Canaccord Genuity analysts, Apple takes over half of industry profits.
The impact could be even more significant, as other major manufacturers like Samsung react to produce competitive products. The television screen could be transformed forever.