Reading Apple’s TV signals

Apple watchers need to remember that the tech giant is in the habit of putting a fresh spin on existing products and the same holds true for its planned TV breakthrough.

Guessing the next Apple product has become the parlour game of choice for a whole generation of technology journalists and analysts. The premise of the game is that given a track record of breakthrough products, there is always another one just around the corner. Being the one to predict this next breakthrough product creates credibility and demonstrates the domain knowledge of the predictor. If the prediction fails to materialise there is consolation in dismissing the actual announced product as disappointing, unsophisticated or, worst of all, uninteresting.

Most often, these guesses are as much a reflection of the analyst as they are an analysis of the company. Too many predictions are designed to impress or demonstrate the imagination or knowledge of the predictor. They typically anticipate a giant leap of functionality, power or market re-structuring. They envision revolution not evolution; a cutting of the Gordian knot not a polishing of ugly rocks.

Yet nearly all of Apple’s launches have been sustaining improvements in existing products, technologies or platforms. To name just a few:

  • The iPad is an evolution of the iPod touch
  • The iPod touch is an evolution of the iPhone
  • The iPhone uses OS X and Objective C from the Mac
  • OS X came from NeXT
  • The app store market model came out of the iTunes store
  • The iTunes store came from iTunes which came first to the Mac as a media sync tool for the iPod
  • etc.

John Gruber explained the process last spring as it relates to many of Apple’s launches. Although the iPhone did introduce a new user input method and experience that takes consumption in a new direction, its building blocks were there for all to see for many years. The iPhone is a natural evolution of the computer with a handy little “Phone” app.

Likewise, the iPod came seemingly out of nowhere but by watching the original launch you see it as part of a “media hub” strategy that envisions the Mac as a personal server. The very products which ended up disrupting the Mac/PC began as extensions of their victims.

You can trace the DNA of almost all of Apple’s products to previous products. If Apple did not have these foundations, the slow-motion revolutions would not have happened. Rather than a deliberate big bang, Apple’s disruptions are the result of a discovery process. A test, iterate and improve loop. This is why they seem obvious after the launch but also why they seem to be such an anti-climax.

Therefore, the challenge of predicting Apple’s next product should be tackled not only through an act of imagination but by carefully projecting the current products and understanding where they can evolve.

So it is that I approach the question of Apple’s TV disruption. My working assumption about the next Apple TV is that it already exists. It’s none other than the existing Apple TV, improved.

Here are the clues or hints I noted:

  • It uses iOS and the hardware from the devices that run it. It originally ran a PC architecture and shared a kernel with Macs.
  • It has been integrated with iTunes media stores (with the notable exception of the iTunes app store)
  • It has begun to introduce channels other than downloads (ESPN, Wall Street Journal) thus establishing its own distribution for traditional content
  • It is a global product, depending only on the internet protocols and independent of the balkanised cable standards
  • Through AirPlay it is integrated with Macs and Apple devices.
  • Through display mirroring, iOS devices can use the TV as an external monitor and can even change their own behavior when doing so

This last point is intriguing. I have not seen discussion of this feature, but if using an iPad 2 or iPhone 4S with iOS 5 and an Apple TV with the latest software updates it’s possible to have an iOS device become a controller for TV-based game experiences. Developers are already using the API. When using a pinball game with screen mirroring, the device becomes a controller while the action takes place on the big screen. Switching display mirroring off bring the action and control back onto the small screen. There are still problems with lag and the processors are over-taxed on high frame rates, but the APIs are already there for developers. (I could also mention the potential of new a Bluetooth standard for better wireless response).

What these signals point to is Apple defining the TV as an iOS portfolio product. This means integration with iTunes, including an app store. This, in turn, means unleashing developer/creative talent through new monetisation opportunities. This means new user experiences in discovery. This means FaceTime-like communication through the TV. This means many other things but mostly it means that the TV will be a platform product.

The only challenge is a (currently lacking) smooth interface. Perhaps that’s where voice comes into the picture. But whether that is built-in at the next rev of the product or not is not the story. The story is going to be the sustaining improvement in the original Apple TV, a wonderfully asymmetric product begging to be ignored. A product that because of its apparent lack of success, effectively hides all its secrets in plain sight.

Horace Dediu is founder and managing director of Asymco, a Helsinki-based app developer/industry analysis advisory firm. You can find his blog here.