I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

“I finally cracked it”

My wife and I watch TV shows on a TV set, but I wouldn’t say that we “watch TV”.

To me, “watching TV” means turning on a TV set to watch whatever is “on”. More specifically, turning on the TV set and a cable box (and, for many people, a standalone audio receiver as well), to watch whatever is being broadcast on cable TV at the moment, possibly flipping through channels regularly, in order to kill time. It’s an inherently passive activity: infinite entertainment passes by with no effort or interaction required. When one show ends, another begins.

Like many modern geeks, we don’t have cable TV service. Our TV set is merely a monitor for game consoles and media players. We can watch movies and TV shows, but not live — only via iTunes and Netflix. It’s more limited than cable TV: relatively few shows are available, and we’re usually pretty far “behind” the broadcast schedule for current shows, making it difficult to talk to people about current TV shows. (This may be a feature, not a bug.) And it requires effort: when a TV episode or movie ends, nothing happens. It’s up to us to decide what to do next and make it happen: either find something else to watch, or turn off the TV and do something else.

This arrangement dramatically changed the way we watched TV. We can watch whenever we want: everything accessible to us is “on demand”. We can pause anything and resume it at any time. We haven’t regularly seen commercials since we cancelled our cable service five years ago. And we only watch shows that we actually think are good, rather than killing countless hours watching whatever’s “on” because it’s not quite bad enough to turn off.

It’s great.

Cable TV customers have attempted to gain these benefits with the DVR, but it’s a bad hack. Even the best results are more like an automated VCR than true on-demand video, and almost nobody reliably gets perfect results. The way to escape the dysfunction of broadcast TV isn’t to record it and play it back later.

But there’s seemingly no way around cable TV operators. They have effectively infinite money coming in (consider how many U.S. households are paying them $60 or more per month), they fight very hard to keep it that way, and they’ve locked up more content deals than any internet video service could hope for.

Some geeks like us are willing to accept the limitations of cable-less TV watching, but most of the mass market isn’t.

So I’m curious what Steve Jobs was planning for Apple’s TV, and whether such a product is under active development. As The Washington Post reports from Steve’s biography by Walter Isaacson:

“[Jobs] very much wanted to do for television sets what he had done for computers, music players, and phones: make them simple and elegant,” Isaacson wrote.

Isaacson continued: “‘I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use,’ he told me. ‘It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud.’ No longer would users have to fiddle with complex remotes for DVD players and cable channels. ‘It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.’”

The simplest interpretation is that this theoretical Apple TV set would be similar to the TVs that we know today, but built with Apple’s quality and style, and with an Apple control interface. Like other TVs on the market, it would have a handful of HDMI inputs on the back for plugging in your crappy cable box and your obsolete game consoles. It would include an ATSC tuner so it can tune to your boring over-the-air networks with your crappy antenna if you aren’t paying a crappy cable company for crappy cable service. If you are paying a crappy cable company, maybe it would have a CableCARD slot or two. Either way, it can replace your crappy DVR with a less-crappy DVR implementation. And it would have all of the current Apple TV box’s functionality built in, with a nice little remote and a simple menu navigation system.

I really hope that isn’t it. That doesn’t sound like Apple.

Apple makes a class of obviously disruptive products, such as the iPhone and iPad, that blow away the industries that existed before them. They also make another class of products, such as the Airport Extreme, that don’t revolutionize their category but simply stand as high-quality implementations of what everyone else is doing. If Steve was excited about Apple’s potential entrance into the TV market, he probably intended to revolutionize it, not just make a nicer version of everyone else’s TV set.

The way to revolutionize the TV market is to cut out all of the legacy. No cable companies. No broadcast tuners. No channels. No DVRs. All internet delivery. All on-demand. No commercials.

But that’s an incredibly tall order. Apple can do a lot, but I’m not sure that they can do that, given how much of it is out of their control.

If all they do is make a really nice TV set like everyone else’s, it’ll probably be as interesting as the Airport Extreme: a nice product in its category, but not exciting or scaring the crap out of anyone.

But if they’ve managed to pull off something more interesting, I’d hate to be in the TV business when it’s released.