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Putting Ears on the Television

There’s some slang in the CB radio world, when you want to know if someone is listening, you ask if they have their ears on. As in, “How ’bout ya JB, got ya ears on?” For some reason this is the phrase that popped into my head when thinking about the possibility of an Apple-designed television set. In earlier thoughts about the future of television, my focus settled on HDMI inputs and clumsy switching between these inputs. In essence, the HDMI input becomes the inheritor of the idea of the channel.

When you look at the inputs and outputs of the big screen, the game is to dominate the primary input. Your cable or satellite programming provider doesn’t want you to ever switch to another HDMI input. If you can be that dominant, your external boxes can commandeer the control experience from the television itself. Anyone who’s hooked up a television to a cable systems has had the experience of being presented with two mutually exclusive proprietary control systems. This is the reason you can have 3 or 4 remote controls sitting on your coffee table. Each HDMI input has a separate control system and listens for control events with a separate set of ears.

Customer satisfaction surveys are a great friend to Apple. This is because customer satisfaction is usually just an accommodation to work-arounds. We’ve grown used to the way the television “works.” The work-around is the way it works, and after a while we don’t even notice the strangeness of it. And when we get that call, interrupting our dinner, asking us whether we’re happy with our television set up, we say, “sure, it’s great.” Of course, the reality is it’s a horrible mess we’ve aclimated ourselves to.

So let’s get back to that CB radio reference. Do you have your ears on? The problem with television sets is they don’t have their ears on. Or rather they’ve been trained to only listen to a single voice at a time. As a user of iOS devices, I’d like to be able to send programming to the big screen at any time via AirPlay. As things stand I can only do that when AppleTV2 is the designated input. An Apple-designed television would always be listening for AirPlay events.

As YouTube gets ready to launch a bunch of channels, I can’t help but think that “the channel” has reached the limit of its usefulness. When I ask Siri whether it’s going to snow today, I don’t need to switch the input to the Weather Channel to get an answer. When I ask my iTV whether there’s a Val Lewton movie on, I don’t want to have to know what channel it’s on. I want Siri to take care of searching my subscriptions and report back on what my options are. The effect of this would be to return control of the television to the television itself.

As things stand, Siri would have a limited domain of television programming services to search through. Although this isn’t too different from the current situation with the iPhone 4s. Eventually all television services will migrate toward television over IP. It’s happened in all other mass media, television will be no different. Even your DVR will just save pointers to stream locations in the cloud.

In an interview, Steve Jobs once said that these waves of technological innovation are slow and unfold over many years. The trick is to pick the right wave and position yourself to benefit from the natural current. We can easily say that today, Siri isn’t good enough (in the sense of an innovator’s dilemma). But it’s perfectly positioned to grow and benefit from a huge wave of cloud-based data/identity services. It’ll work the same way with iTV.

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