Why Apple Could Still Own the Living Room of the Future

Why Apple Could Still Own the Living Room of the Future

Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony, Google and all the big-screen TV makers want to own the the all-purpose living room entertainment system of tomorrow.

Smart TV systems, which will incorporate movies-on-demand, gaming, web surfing, videoconferencing, home automation and more (even TV shows!) are likely to become the next big opportunity for content-driven platform companies.

But is time running out for Apple to make its move?

The surprising answer is: No, not really. Apple’s got plenty of time. And there’s no need for Apple to make a TV set, either.

Here’s why.

The Game Consoles Aren’t Playing Games

Microsoft Xbox 360 has been around for more than seven years, and the company has sold about 70 million of them. The game console manages all your home entertainment, plays optical disc movies, downloads streaming content from Netflix and other sites, including streaming music from Xbox Music, lets you surf the web and do social network, connects you via chat or live videoconferencing and more.

A newish Xbox SmartGlass initiative enables interaction between TV and mobile devices.

Importantly, Microsoft decided to support non-Microsoft platforms. For example, the first Xbox SmartGlass for Android shipped this week. That means once you’ve entered in all your Xbox Live vitals in the app, you can waltz into any room with an Xbox, connect via WiFi, and then interact with that installation of Xbox like you own it.

You can use the app as the TV remote control, display game stats on the phone while you’re playing a game on the TV or even use your phone as a controller for game play (only with games that explicitly support the feature). Control streaming music over Xbox Music. You can even use the phone as a keyboard for typing on the TV while surfing the Web.

One huge usage for Xbox SmartGlass is augmented sports. While you’re watching a game, the SmartGlass app constantly displays real-time scores, stats and other information about what’s happening on the TV.

The iOS version of Xbox SmartGlass is expected to hit the App Store soon.

Microsoft is rumored to be developing a successor called the Xbox 720, code-named “Durango,” which could be out in time for next year’s holiday season. Interestingly, the console is rumored to have no optical drive (like the new iMac, and for the same reasons).

Another credible rumor says the Xbox 720’s controller will be like the Wii Us — it will have a touch screen on the controller itself. If that rumor is true, it’s also likely that unlike the Wii U controller, the Xbox 720’s will be optional, and that you’ll continue to be able to use your own tablet or phone as a controller or a peripheral to the TV via Xbox SmartGlass.

The coolest rumor surrounding the Xbox 720 references a Microsoft patent for a method for using a gaming console to augment on-screen game play with projectors that turn the entire room into the gaming environment, including the walls, floor and ceiling. Combine that with a rumored Kinect so advanced that it can read lips, and you’ve got something like a rudimentary Star Trek Holodeck.

Nintendo this week made a big play for the living room, too, with its Wii U system.

Nintendo says they’ll probably ship 5.5 million Wii U game units between the availability date of November 18 and the end of March. The Wii U costs $300, which Nintendo is selling at a loss.

The Wii U comes with a controller called the GamePad, which itself is a tablet computer, albeit one more similar to an old-and-busted UltraMobile PC idea, with game-controller joysticks and buttons on each side of the screen, than the new-hotness touch tablet.

The Wii U enables subscribers to sign up for the Wiiverse service, which lets them do video chat, download games and so on. Users can watch movies from Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, and YouTube. And an NFC chip built into the controller enables the wireless installation of software, and also NFC-based credit card purchases.

While Nintendo sees its Wii U controller as its “secret sauce,” given that it can do things tablets cannot do, the controller is in fact its fatal flaw. The general concept of fluid interaction between TV and tablet is becoming universalized. And while Wii U users are stuck with a proprietary tablet, everyone else will be using their own personal tablets and phones, as well as better-supported app stores to choose from.

But the entire model is based on the idea that what’s on the TV can be taken “to go” on the small screen. When watching the large screen, the small screen becomes an intelligent augmenter or controller of what’s on the big screen.

Sony’s Playstation 3 also provides TV and movies downloads via the PlayStation Store, and limited socializing on PlayStation Home. Sony has hinted at limited collaboration with various companies on mobile-TV interactivity. But for the most part, Sony is off in the weeds, and looks like its role in the living room of tomorrow will be the production and sale of overpriced TVs.

Smart TV is Dumb So Far

The Google TV platform, although popular with some Android geeks, also appears to be going nowhere in the broader consumer market, but it’s reasonable to assume that Google will keep hammering away at the idea until it succeeds.

The key features of Google TV are that it runs Android, and is designed to support a robust app ecosystem and be customizable by TV makers. The combination of Google tweaking and improving on the one hand, and third-party TV and app makers on the other adding cool new features, could make Google TV a compelling living room platform someday.

The major Korean and Japanese TV makers offer Google TV sets, as well as their own proprietary “Smart TV” features as a hedge against Google. But I don’t see any of these catching on as app development platforms or central hubs for living room entertainment.

The New Living Room

Despite this long list of players and wide variety of approaches and technologies, the future of the living room is becoming clear.

Tomorrow’s TVs will do everything. They’ll be Internet computers, game consoles, multimedia entertainment systems, video phones, and — importantly — will be controllable via arbitrary mobile touch devices. And they’ll offer sci-fi user interfaces like in-air gestures and voice command.

The new TVs will seek to break down the walls between types of media and even types of online activities. For example, you tell your TV: “Batman,” and it will instantly provide first the option to download and watch the HD version of the most recent “Dark Knight” movie that has been made available online. Next, it will offer you tickets to the nearest theater showing the current release of the series. Then Dark Knight and Batman console games, then Batman TV shows and cartoons, then Batman graphic novel and comic downloads for your tablet, and the list will go on and on.

Your TV will have your credit card, so whatever you choose will be an instant gratification experience.

Why Apple Isn’t Late to the Game, So To Speak

There are two reasons why Apple has plenty of time to enter, then dominate, the living room of the future.

The first is that nobody except Microsoft is making any significant headway. All the other players are stumbling along with non-existent or irrelevant attempts that have no chance of catching fire in the market anytime soon.

The second reason is that these living room systems don’t involve serious lock-in. The cost of investing in, say, an Xbox or Wii U system is $300. The biggest lockin is for content. But when you’re talking about home entertainment, where people are used to constantly shelling out money for new content, the lock-in factor isn’t a major barrier to switching platforms.

If Apple enters the market with a killer solution in a year, two years or even three years, it would be trivial for consumers already invested in existing platforms to rip all that equipment out and start over.

Or, they could add the Apple system for their main entertainment and communication hub, and keep, say, the Xbox around for those late-night Call Of Duty sessions. Why not?

In order to succeed, Apple needs only enter the market with a markedly superior solution any time in the next few years.

The one thing Apple does not need is an Apple TV set, because that’s unnecessary for Apple to own the living room. None of its serious competitors are doing it with a TV set. And, in any event, even if Apple shipped a real TV, it still would need a stand-alone box in order to capture any significant market share.

The decision by Apple to sell or not sell an Apple TV set is completely unrelated to any effort to own the platform that people use with their TVs.

It’s interesting to note that Apple already has mature versions of all the major component parts of a living room platform, including the mobile platform (iOS devices), the sci-fi interface (Siri), the content store (iTunes), the cloud storage service (iCloud).

The biggest barrier may be Apple’s desire to own it all. Specifically, I’m worried that Apple may not want to incorporate optical media, for example, telling consumers that content they watch on their TVs should come only through iTunes. I’m worried that they may not want to open up FaceTime to other video platforms. Nobody’s going to replace their home phone with FaceTime on TV if they can call only other Apple users.

One interesting opportunity for Apple is the recent shipment of Ultra-HD TVs from LG and Sony.

An Ultra-HD TV is really a TV that matches Apple’s definition of a “Retina” display. Ultra-HD TVs have more than eight million pixels of resolution — at least 3,840 horizontally and at least 2,160 vertically.

They’re monstrously expensive. The LG and Sony models are each more than $20,000 — which means they’ll cost $5,000 in two years and $3,000 in three. They both have WiFi built in, and support passive 3D.

It will take broadcast and cable TV many years to start broadcasting at this resolution. Even Blu-ray distribution probably won’t start for two years.

Apple is trying to lead with resolution on tablets and laptops; it makes sense that they should do the same in the TV space — not with a TV, but with content. Apple is in a position to be first to market with a wide selection of Ultra-HD streaming content.

Another interesting development is the rise in mobile-app based home automation — the controlling of lamps, locks, appliances and so on via smartphones. Living room systems are a perfect hub for this new generation of low-cost, app-based products. (Just check Kickstarter to see what people are working on.)

I believe Apple still has time to enter the living room market at its leisure and dominate it with the right product.

I’m not saying that Apple is guaranteed to win if they enter the market. They could very well fail, and Microsoft could win.

But what I’m saying is that it’s not too late for Apple. Apple’s still got plenty of time to own the awesome, all-important living room of the future.

(Illustration courtesy of Samuel Lee Kwon)

  • Shaun Green

    “Tomorrow’s TVs will do everything. They’ll be Internet computers, game consoles, multimedia entertainment systems, video phones, and — importantly — will be controllable via arbitrary mobile touch devices. And they’ll offer sci-fi user interfaces like in-air gestures and voice command.”

    I would disagree you on that Mike. Basically what do we want in our living rooms? We want speakers to listen to our music instead of an old fashioned HiFi system. We want a flat screen panel to watch TV or watch our iTunes content such as movies and tv shows. We want the ability to download and play games. What do all three of these things have in common? Simple, you can download everything on to your iOS device or Mac.

    So you want to listen to some music – pick up your iPod scroll through, select the track and press play – and it automatically sync’s with your wireless speakers and plays the music. No need for a HiFi anymore.

    Now apply that logic to a movie. Scroll through your iPad or ask Siri to find the movie your looking for and press play – the movie then starts playing on your TV. But here’s the difference – you don’t need a smart TV – the “smart” parts are all in the iPad. So the only “TV” you need is a flat panel screen with a AirPlay receiver built in. Hence the possible name for the rumoured Apple TV – “iPanel”. Because they are simple monitors in affect they can be very thin, very light and will be cheaper to mass produce. You could have an iPanel in each room of the house and control eacj one using your iPad. Suddenly the TV becomes personal to you and your content.

    Want to watch some TV – scroll through the TV guide on your iPad, find what you want and select it to play – the iPanel recognises the AirPlay signal and hey presto your iPanel starts playing your TV. All you will need to do is plug your TV aerial into an Apple black box which then connects to your wifi router and hey presto you have TV anywhere in the house either on your iOS device or iPanel.

    Apple get to sell lots more iOS devices and gets to sell lots of iPanels in different sizes for different rooms rather than trying convince people to buy a new traditional size TV.

  • joelubow

    This is spot on.

    From the moment the iPad 3 came out with it’s retina display, it has made sense to me that Apple would negotiate for retina resolution content and release a TV store (in iTunes or not) at the same time as a gorgeous retina display television. The content deal would have to be compelling enough for folks with regular 1080p tv’s to hop on too, since the market for $4,000 televisions is not large enough. Instead of paying $70 per month for $800 channels, an Apple store could offer content both a la carte and bundled.

    Buy an episode, a series, a network, a collection of networks. Buy MSNBC or Fox, but not both. Buy HBO without the other 799 stations. Spend less than $70 and get exactly what you want. And of course, by the time you’re done with pay-per-view, you might spend more than that, just as folks do now. But you’ll be spending it with Apple instead of Comcast or Verizon.

  • aepxc

    Will the TV and the living room really be so central going forward? People gathered in one room (and, later, around one screen/set of speakers) because there was, respectively, no other way to (richly) communicate and replicating entertainment devices for individual use was prohibitively expensive. Neither really remains true. There will certainly be scope for a smarted-up TV/entertainment system as a background/intermittent attention centre for a party, or for the rare group-attended special event (e.g. big sports game), but I struggle to imagine a scenario in which the TV screen will not become the least important among all of our other screens, going forward. For anyone currently in or just graduating from college, for instance, the TV will probably be the last of the ‘screens’ bought.

    So, you’re definitely right that Apple could still own the ‘shared screen’, but I doubt that it would be a particularly big prize, regardless of who manages to win it.

  • technochick

    Owning the living room would really be about hardware. It’s bout content. The company that will own the living room will be the one that can wrench Hollywoods inflated head out of its ass about digital content

  • seelee

    I fully expect Apple to solve the car dashboard/infotainment system before they go to the living room. Maps with turn-by-turn navigation, Apple Radio, Eyes Free Siri, iPad Mini, etc. It all adds up.

  • Steffen Jobbs

    The current AppleTV is far too locked down compared to the high-end Roku player. The double-duty the Xbox does for gaming and media sharing is much more useful than AppleTV. Nearly every single $99 media stream box on the planet is more useful than AppleTV. For a company with Apple’s resources and wealth, that is rather unpardonable.

  • GregBob8

    as Carrie said I’m alarmed that people can get paid $4681 in 4 weeks on the internet. have you read this site link (Click on menu Home more information)
    http://goo.gl/NpiF2

  • hanhothi

    I have most of that already! I have a 42 inch 3D LCD TV with a TiVo and a Windows7 computer plugged in. The computer is connected to the Internet and my Synology NAS. All my music and vids are on the NAS. It has a BlueRay drive, SSDD and massive HD drive. I can control it with my iPad, iPhone, BlueTooth Keyboard, mouse or iMon remote. Works a treat!

  • JohnBlox

    Apples key USP is that stuff actually works. They seem to be forgetting this post Steve Jobs re IOS6 , Home-Sharing being buggy. The future will be owned by the most reliable, simplest and intuitive user interface in that order of importance. It’s not about features any more.

    I personally would never ever buy anything by Samsung as history taught me not to trust them re reliability of i8910 3 years ago. If Apple lose that trust they’re finished as they cannot compete on price or features or…

    They need to focus on making ATV response much faster and seriously improve iTunes home-sharing response to < 1s connection time on all devices + make it much much much more robust and reliable. They should also allow ATV to connect to standard upnp servers for people with NAS’s + release that SDK so we can get catchuptv and actually watch live-tv on it. Oh and fix all the bugs re sorting of media

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Mike ElganMike Elgan writes about technology and culture for a wide variety of publications. Follow Mike on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

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