It’s just a screen. A rather locked down screen. Let’s change that.
The TV was everyone’s favorite thing to say should be disrupted, until watches became the Next Big Thing™. Steve Jobs famously called their Apple TV set-top box a “hobby”, but that didn’t keep away the annual rumors that Apple was eventually going to make their own TV. But it’s not that surprising that Apple hasn’t gone for it yet; the road to a fully disrupted TV is littered with dead products and failed dreams.
It’s hard to look at the so-called Smart TVs today and think that we’ve arrived. If anything, they’d remind you more of the original Tablet PCs with clunky software that doesn’t feel like it’s been designed specifically for that device. The TV needs an iPad-style revolution.
But what would such a revolution look like? For that, you’ll need to take a stroll down the dark alleys of the internet. No, you won’t need Tor, but you will need to look beyond the likes of PirateBay to the streaming sites that list every movie and TV show imaginable. For there, just one search and a few clicks through ads later, you can instantly watch anything you want. The quality varies, and you’ll occasionally find something recorded in the wrong language, but that’ll be easily forgotten after you’ve started watching anything you can think of seconds after searching for it.
Now, combine that with full-length HD movie downloads for the stuff you want to keep around without the DRM restrictions that make movie downloads today so cantankerous — something the likes of PirateBay or a couple downloads and your Bluray player can provide today — and you’ve got a solid glimpse of what the future of movies and TV shows could be. And you can’t reinvent TV without first solving the content issue itself.
We’re 6 Years Behind
Digital music used to be every bit as frustrating as digital video is today. If you had an iPod and bought your songs from the iTunes Store, or if you had any device and bought CDs and ripped them yourself, you were fine. Otherwise, you’d have to pick from an excruciatingly limited selection of music that’d work with your device or jump through hoops (like burning DRMed songs to a CD and ripping them) to get songs from iTunes to play wherever you wanted. It was a mess.
Compare that to today, where every digital song you buy online or from iTunes is DRM free and will work from any device on the planet, and there’s an incredible number of streaming services that’ll let you listen to as much music as you want with a subscription. It’s a world of difference, one prompted by Steve Jobs’ “Thoughts on Music” post on Apple.com. Today, there’s no excuse to pirate music — it’s simpler to stream it online or buy a copy from iTunes, and you can use the copy you buy anywhere and back it up however you want.
We’ve solved the digital music issue, so why not solve the movie issue? We’ve got a partial solution today, one very similar to the music issues of a half-decade ago. You can buy almost any movie or TV show you can think of from iTunes, but will have to play it back on a Mac or PC, iOS device, or Apple TV. Or, you can stream most TV shows and a number of movies from services like Netflix, the one place it’s easier to go legit than to pirate. Broadcast TV — say, CNN and sports — are hit-and-miss, some easy to watch online and others only available if you also have a cable subscription.
What we really need is DRM free video purchases, and reasonable streaming/rental options that have everything we’d want to watch. If Netflix had every movie and TV show ever made ready to watch in a click — and was global, without any location restrictions — I’m certain they’d be able to easily charge double or triple their current subscription price. And if iTunes HD movie downloads were DRM free so you could play them directly on any TV sans-HDCP or burn them to a disk to play at Grandma’s house or watch them on an Android phone or Microsoft Surface, digital video purchases would make a lot more sense. Purchasing — or legit streaming — would be simpler than pirating.
Broadcast TV and cable stations would still have to have an future-proofed online solution, of course. There’s still stupendous to turning on a channel and watching whatever’s on, without thinking about it, and that’s lost with digital video where you have to pick what you want to watch. Plus, you can’t switch news and sports to simple episode streams the way you can chop up AMC and HBO’s content, so we still would need live streams. But that should be simple enough — after all, online streaming video is nothing new. Do it in an open standard, on its own subscription or perhaps bundled in a Netflix-like service, and make it fully global, and I can’t imagine why it wouldn’t work.
Put all of that together — streaming video services that have extensive catalogs, DRM-free downloads, and streaming channels, all without geoblocking — and you’d have the media part figured out for the future of TV. We’re at least half-way there, what with Netflix (and their new ventures into original content), the iTunes/Amazon/Google Play stores (and Vimeo’s new shot at streaming indie movies and selling and rather innovative sports streaming that lets you pick angles and replays to rewatch — but we need to go the rest of the way before we can really have the future of TV. It might take forever for the studios to catch up, but it’s beyond time to make the changes.
The App Store Potential
But then, limiting the TV to just video seems ridiculous in the age of the App Store. After all, a TV is just a big screen. And yet, we’ve been far more creative with the other screens in our lives — hello, computers and tablets and phones — than the TV. Surely once we have media solved, we can do a lot more with the TV — both for videos and for things we haven’t even thought of yet — than Smart TVs of today offer.
Now, TVs have far fewer pixels than your iPad, so they’re definitely not going to be where you want to do your reading — even though reading apps have become one of the main killer apps on the iPad. One might think that the TV screen would be great to fill with widgets showing the weather and stocks and your latest emails, but we already know how horrible TV news looks now with multiple tickers and info-panels. Throwing an API at the big screen is surely not enough, or otherwise the smart TV interfaces we’ve seen so far would have fared better.
What we need is someone with a brand new idea on how to use the TV screen. Not something out of Minority Report or the many “tech of the future” videos put out by Microsoft and others, but something that’s a new idea for how you can put a TV to use today. See, no one seemed to think of ways normal people could put a tablet to use in their lives, so when Apple made the iPad they had to make their own best-in-class apps for it, from iBooks and the built-in browser and email apps to iWork and Garageband, to showcase what it was capable of. Someone’s got to do that for the TV before the whole idea of a smart TV makes any sense. We need a killer idea for what a TV can be used for, and then the tech to bring that to the TV.
I happen to think Geckoboard and other status board web apps for teams are one of the most innovative uses of a large screen that we’ve seen in a while. Perhaps everyone doesn’t need something like that for their personal use, but it’s an idea, at least. Then, there’s the oldest living room tech, game consoles, that still are the best alternate use of TVs to date. There’s got to be more ways to put the largest screen in your house to use, though, and someone’s got to come out with an incredible new idea that makes the way we think of TV today seem quaint by comparison.
Until then, the TV will continue to be a video and game screen. And that’s fine, really, especially if the studios would hurry up and get everything online. But I’m looking forward to see someone who will revolutionize the TV the way Apple did the smartphone and tablet. It might be Apple, or it might be someone else. But without an incredible idea of something new the TV can be used for, there’s little more an extra set-top box can do for us today — we’ve all got the tech already to make DRM-free video and streaming services work on the TV.
Somebody’s going to figure this out, and it’ll seem like it should have been obvious all along in hindsight. But today, there’s nothing on the market that’s the real future of the TV, aside from the first steps of Netflix and others to free TV and movies from the constraints of cable and disks. We’re waiting and ready — someone needs to surprise us and deliver the future of TV.