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The Big Screen, Social Applications and The Battleground of the Living Room

If “devices” are the entry point to the Network, and the market is settling in to the three screens and a cloud model, all eyes are now on the big screen. The one that occupies the room in your house that used to be called the “living room.” The pattern for the little screen, the telephone, has been set by the iPhone. The middle sized screen is the process of being split between the laptop and the iPad. But the big screen has resisted the Network, the technology industry is already filled with notable failures in this area. Even so, the battle for the living room is billed as the next big convergence event on the Network.

A screen is connected to the Network when being connected is more valuable than remaining separate. We saw this with personal computers and mobile telephones. Cable television, DVD players and DVRs have increased the amount of possible video content an individual can consume through the big screen to practically infinite proportions. If the Network adds more, infinity + infinity, does it really add value? The proposition behind GoogleTV seems to be the insertion of a search-based navigation scheme over the video/audio content accessible through the big screen.

As with the world wide web, findability through a Yahoo-style index gives way to a search-based random access model. Clearly the tools for browsing the program schedule are in need of improvement. The remote channel changer is a crippled and distorted input device, but adding a QWERTY keyboard and mouse will just make the problem worse. Google has shown that getting in between the user and any possible content she wants to access is a pretty good business model. The injection of search into the living room as a gateway to the user’s video experience creates a new advertising surface at the border of the content that traditionally garners our attention. The whole audience is collected prior to releasing it into any particular show.

Before we continue, it might be worth taking a moment to figure out what’s being fought over. There was a time when television dominated the news and entertainment landscape. Huge amounts of attention were concentrated into the prime time hours. But as Horace Deidu of Asymco points out, the living room isn’t about the devices in the physical space of the living room — it’s about the “…time and attention of the audience. The time spent consuming televised content is what’s at stake.” He further points out that the old monolithic audiences have been thoroughly disrupted and splintered by both cable and the Network. The business model of the living room has always been selling sponsored or subscription video content. But that business has been largely hollowed out, there’s really nothing worth fighting for. If there’s something there, it’ll have to be something new.

Steve Jobs, in a recent presentation, said that Apple had made some changes to AppleTV based on user feedback. Apple’s perspective on the living room is noticeably different from the accepted wisdom. They say that users want Hollywood movies and television shows in HD — and they’d like to pay for them. Users don’t want their television turned into a computer, and they don’t want to manage and sync data on hard drives. In essence it’s the new Apple Channel, the linear television programming schedule of cable television splintered into a random access model at the cost of .99¢ per high-definition show. A solid vote in favor of the stream over the enclosure/download model. And when live real-time streams can be routed through this channel, it’ll represent another fundamental change to the environment.

When we say there are three screens and a cloud, there’s an assumption that the interaction model for all three screens will be very similar. The cloud will stream the same essential computing experience to all three venues. However, Jobs and Apple are saying that the big screen is different than the other two. Sometimes this is described as the difference between “lean in” and “lean back” interactions. But it’s a little more than that: the big screen is big so that it can be social— so that family, friends or business associates can gather around it. The interaction environment encourages social applications rather than personal application software. The big screen isn’t a personal computer, it’s a social computer. This is probably what Marshall McLuhan was thinking about when he called the television experience “tribal.” Rather than changing the character of the big screen experience, Apple is attempting to operate within its established interaction modes.

Switching from one channel to another used to be the basic mode of navigation on the television. The advent of the VCR/DVD player changed that. Suddenly there was a higher level of switching involved in operating a television, from the broadcast/cable input to the playback device input. The cable industry has successfully reabsorbed some aspects of the other devices with DVRs and onDemand viewing. But to watch a DVD from your personal collection, or from Netflix, you’ll still need to change the channel to a new input device. AppleTV also requires the user to change the input channel. And it’s at this level, changing the input channel, that the contours of the battleground come in to focus. The viewer will enable and select the Comcast Channel, the Apple Channel, the Google Channel, the Game Console Channel or the locally attached-device channel. Netflix has an interesting position in all of this, their service is distributed through a number of the non-cable input channels. Netflix collects its subscription directly from the customer, whereas HBO and Showtime bundle their subscriptions into the cable company’s monthly bill. This small difference exposes an interesting asymmetry and may provide a catalyst for change in the market.

Because we’ve carried a lot of assumptions along with us into the big screen network computing space, there hasn’t been a lot of new thought about interaction or what kind of software applications make sense. Perhaps we’re too close to it; old technologies tend to become invisible. In general the software solutions aim to solve the problem of what happens in the time between watching slideshows, videos, television shows and movies (both live stream and onDemand). How does the viewer find things, save things, determine whether something is any good or not. A firm like Apple, one that makes all three of the screen devices, can think about distributing the problem among the devices with a technology like AirPlay. Just as a screen connects to the Network when it’s more valuable to be connected than to be separate, each of the three screens will begin to connect to the others when the value of connection exceeds that of remaining separate.

It should be noted that just as the evolution of the big screen is playing out in living rooms around the world, the same thing will happen in the conference rooms of the enterprise. One can easily see the projected Powerpoint presentation replaced with a presentation streamed directly from an iPad/iPhone via AirPlay to an AppleTV-connected big screen.

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