Why Apple’s Upcoming TV Will Have An AirPlay Interface



Please don’t look at the following images on a full stomach:

Okay, sorry I had to do that, but it’s important. And to my friends on the TV manufacturing side of the world – it’s not your fault!  It’s not your fault!

Most “Smart TV” user interfaces suck, and you’re doing your best. But they fundamentally violate so many rules of user experience design. But why are they so bad? In a nutshell, it’s for the same reason you don’t expect loggers to sell fancy high-end furniture (think about that one for a second). The products are being built from the wrong end of the production team.

For the dining room table, what do you think, arrow foot or ball foot?

Let’s agree that user experience design is a challenge to begin with. Apple does it great. Everyone else, not so much – and even Apple products have flaws. Further, virtually everything about a “ten foot” user interface (the terminology we use to describe what happens onscreen on your TV) is a broken interaction model, so this is going to be crippled no matter what.

I’ll write about this more in the future, but I believe there’s a fundamental breakdown on the limitations of what you can do with any 10′ UI and a remote control, regardless of gestures, speech, etc.

Next, per my logger analogy, effectively the teams building these products have absolutely no experience nor expertise at this kind of design. The world of consumer electronics has (barely) evolved from dials, knobs, and switches to doing highly complicated interfaces on screens. Not only that, every year the requirements are changing!

And since this is a new field (despite almost 20 years worth of ten-foot UIs), there are very, very few folks out there who have dived deeply into this problem (the Wikipedia page on the topic barely even requires a scrollbar to read everything). So the same people who are used to just getting the TV to work right, are now also in charge of creating “an experience”. I think this is a guaranteed to fail situation, and it’s unfortunate for everyone involved.

The last “easy” TV user interface.

First, regarding voice-controlled TVs. Is this part of the future? Absolutely, unquestionably, undeniably. Siri hacking is already a hobby, and the idea of “TV, channel 702 please” or “TV, Watch The Office” or “TV, Record New Episodes of Arrested Development” all sound great. But how much of an improvement is this really?

I’d call it a minor enhancement – specifically in context to all the action happening in the second screen. If you can pick up your smart phone or iPad and perform roughly the same query in one of dozens of apps, then “talking” this command doesn’t really sound like a HUGELY big deal. It sounds incremental. And when Steve Jobs told his biographer, Walter Isaacson, “I’ve finally cracked it,” it doesn’t seem like he was talking about incremental. As I’ve written about previously, I don’t think it’s about physical gestures either, and as I’ll write about more in the future, it’s unlikely “apps” nor about some “new” 10-foot user interface (those are terrible, and are dead, thankfully).

What if Steve Jobs wasn’t talking about some futuristic thing we’ll see one day? What if it’s not some mystical innovation that we can’t possibly fathom? See, I talk to virtually everybody in the future of TV industry, and not a single person seems to be able to imagine what this could be. That’s a whole lot of smart, industry-relevant, savvy people to be so in the dark.

So I’m going to take a giant leap backwards on the statement “I cracked it” and instead of looking at what might come, I’m looking at what’s already there. See, from my eyes, the single biggest improvement to the TV experience I’ve ever seen happened last year.

I think “I Cracked It” exists, and it’s called AirPlay.

AirPlay takes a fundamental mindshift from thinking about whats happening ON the screen, where you have to use a remote (or gesture or voice or whatever) to control some awkward, ill-performing, frustrating, fundamentally LOUSY user interface. AirPlay shifts the interface to your favorite location, the device you hold, and carry with you all the time. AirPlay enables you to have the most organic, natural, helpful user experience you can, then just shift that experience to the device you want, easily and flawlessly. It’s an awesome experience.

For the record, I don’t mean this to be a gush about Apple TV / AirPlay – merely the experience the two together provide, one I anticipate will be replicated by others, and soon. The future of TV interfaces will be controlled by your second screen, and you’ll have one simple way to get it to the screen of your choosing.

Today that’s done by AirPlay, but by the end of 2012 you’ll see this type of offering from a variety of manufacturers and app providers.

The first “moment of change” for TV user interfaces happened in the late 1990s by TiVo. The next one happened in 2010, by Steve Jobs & Apple. And yes, he cracked it.

This is a guest post by Jeremy Toeman, Chief Product Officer of Dijit Media, a venture-funded startup whose vision is to create the ultimate “four screen” social entertainment experience. It was originally published here.

  • CDifferent

    If I understand correctly, one would do all their channel surfing/searching/recording on the smart iOS device (which is so much faster and intuitive), then push that out to the TV via airplay.

    I like it!

  • howie_isaacks

    I really hate the ads that try to load when I click links to COM articles in my RSS feed.  Are you trying to deliberately be annoying?

  • Alfiejr

    i agree that AirPlay combined with Siri is the best idea to integrate the possibilities of a “smart TV.” in addition to the UI improvements, you would have two screens of related content at the same time (like the Bloomberg news app now). the TV remote STB apps available now, like TiVo’s, also are evolving in that direction.

    but … for ease of use on the sofa, the iPad is too big and the iPhone/iPod touch is too small. which is why i think for this and other good reasons Apple will come out with a larger 5″+ iPod touch this year. for a good UI, the right size device is really important.

  • owerrc

    i still don’t see how iTV fit in with their current business model. They make refresh every year of their product (iphone ipod ipad macs) and people update whatever they already have. I just can’t see someone spending $2000 upgrading their tv every year…

  • guest

    Finally figured it out. A tv with apps you pay for to bring to you what you want to watch only. Instead of the system from cable tv we have today where you pay for 100+ channels.
    Developers will have a field day designing apps for cable news   disney   discovery Nat Geo. History  NFL  etc etc etc

  • Tomáš Kubín

    BINGO. First right opinion about coming Apple TV. It’s running already, we tried it already, would be no problem to roll it out, but HW is missing, displays and so on. Would like to know more?

  • techgeek01


    I honestly think that the only company who has an idea what they are doing is Microsoft.

    Smart TV? That isn’t the future.
    streaming box? That isn’t the future.

    The future is: a multi-purpose box that is reasonably priced.  People WON’T buy a new TV every other year.  But a reasonably priced multi-purpose box?  Yes.

    Here is what people want/need:
    game system
    DVD player
    streaming box

    And the xBox has (about) all.  And the xBox 720 will even push this further.

    What people want is a BOX that can start replacing other boxes (fully).  Most smart TV’s may be ONLY able to replace 1 box. if that.  Apple TV?  It will only be able to replace the Apple TV box.  That’s it.  Not the other boxes.

    All a TV is: display.  Display is what a TV is.  There is no difference (besides size) between a computer monitor and TV.  (Or their should be no difference)  All a TV is, is a giant display.  And it should stay that way.

    All what should change is what’s UNDERNEATH the TV.  And the only company that is really focusing on this is Microsoft. 

  • Shameer Mulji

    Depending on how much tv you watch, it won’t be very difficult for you to pay more, on a monthly basis, for a la carte tv like you’ve described, versus cable tv.  That’s the potential downside of a la carte.

  • Shameer Mulji

    I definitely agree with you.  The Xbox 360, so far, is the best implementation of a living-room experience I’ve experienced so far.

  • Alex

     People WON’T buy a new TV every other year.”

    Your absolutely right …. Somehow I think manufacturers got confused by the increased sales that happened during the digital TV conversion into to thinking that was the new level for TV sales, its not.  

    I just upgraded my WDTV again why buy new TV to get new features ?

  • mrcuesta

    Why everyone seems to think that the TV problem is only – or mostly – about user interface and controlling the TV set? It has to do with it, obviously. But just as with many things Apple, the “problem” includes the whole TV ecosystem.

    Apple would not only improve viewer’s interface with the TV, but it would most likely also tackle content delivery and integration with already existing platforms (namely iTunes, iCloud, etc). And, as it did with music, I believe it will also try to eliminate the “middle man” and somehow give viewers the power to “playlist” their own shows, regardless of the network that broadcast them, and watch them in any of their iDevices. Indie producers may submit TV shows that wouldn’t have a chance in any current over-the-air-or-cable network, but that might be hits among an iTunes audience (remember, Apple also sells Final Cut Pro and the hardware that runs it). iAds could run along this system, offering advertisers a “new” platform (and hopefuly, viewers could hide ads). More revenue for Apple, better targeting for advertisers, possibly a little more money for producers, happier viewers that have power over what, how and when to watch whatever they like. Even the power to keep shows on air if they are popular. The days of network executives killing shows due to low audience ratings may be numbered : )
    As mstrmc points out, apps could (and will) be created specifically for iTV. But such apps might also be, for example, multiplayer games that anyone in the household can enjoy by hooking up their iPod touches or iPhones to iTV as a game controller.

    If all of this happens over the Internet, a lot of bandwidth will be needed. Maybe Apple has already developed a new broadcast-quality compression standard that, coupled with improved wifi protocols, could deliver TV content around the house.

    And all of this may happen without an actual iTV set. A beffed up AppleTV could do the trick, enabling your current flat screen TVs to work within this model. No need to buy a $2000 set at every update. 

    But if an actual iTV set is coming, my guess is that Apple is well aware that, for their TVs to sell, they must offer something more than crisper images, a better user interface and a fantastic industrial design. It is the whole system that they must be looking forward to transform.

  • Tiby Csapo

    And we can already do it!

  • penguinstorm

    AirPlay isn’t a user interface. It’s just a way of streaming data. Your headline fails.

  • penguinstorm

    As long as XBox is marketed as a gaming platform, it’s adoption will be limited. There are people who don’t want gaming machines in their houses.

    Microsoft would do well to think about that and/or offer a box that offered the xBox media interface (which I’m not a huge fan of) without the gaming functions.

    Playstation has similar capabilities and the same platform perception problem.

  • penguinstorm

    I always like this argument: taking Apple’s TV pricing as an example shows are basically $2.00 each. Most shows are either 1/2 hour or an hour so let’s say your viewing is split evenly between those.

    “Full” cable–the package that most of my friends have–costs about $80 a month but can go up to $100. Take the lower number and calculate it out. That gets your 40 shows.

    20 of those shows are an hour so that’s 20 hours, the other 20 are a half hour so that’s 10 hours. That adds up to 30 hours of television viewing you can *buy* on an a la carte basis. A bit less when you factor in the fact that the shows don’t have commercials, so it probably boils down to about 21 hours.

    So you’d have to be spending about 3/4 of a full work week watching TV to exceed what you could *buy* al la carte. (You consume the full time when you watch it on TV because you consume the commercials.)

    That’s a lot of time dedicated to watching TV.

    Let’s not loose sight of the fact that a Netflix subscription is $8.50 a month–1/10th the price of that cable bill–for basically the same thing with a key difference: the pipe coming into your house has what you *want* to watch, not what the networks happen to have scheduled. In the example above you *own* the content. With your cable bill you don’t, and that’s what Netflix is comparable too.

    So you could spend more, but you’re basically dropping a red herring argument based on a specific model and specific content. It’s quite possible to have access to the same *volume* or content in the same *style* for quite a bit less.

  • Tyler Ramsay

    So you mean making something extremely similar to  Logitech Harmony® Link ?

  • MacGoo

    I fail to see how Airplay is an interface at all. It’s simply streaming tech to push video to your TV. And if you think that in the future, we’ll all be pushing programing to our TVs from our iPad/Phone/Pods, you’re wrong.

    If you strip away Airplay, and talk about the iPod/Phone/Pad as a remote, of COURSE they are going to do this. Along with Siri. That’s not news, that’s common sense. This article feels like Monday-morning troll bait.

  • Alfiejr

    you and the guy below miss the concept, altho the article did not explain it well: Airplay enables iOS apps to provide two screens of related content at the same time. one, the main video content, on your HDTV. the other, additional content of whatever kind – including web based real time info – on your iPad screen in your hands to manipulate. try the Bloomberg iPad app to get the idea. the potential for apps/games of all kinds to take advantage of this is obvious and huge.

  • MacGoo

    Again, a well-worn and desired concept. But not at all what the article above was talking about.

    “Altho (sic) the article did not explain it well”…more like the article didn’t explain it at ALL, which was my point.

  • Cornelius Hager

    That’s the same concept I draw out of this article. Sound really interesting for me. Just imagine programm info without blocking the screen ;)

    But seriously, I can think of various ways to make big use out of this idea.

  • Bob Forsberg

    Airplay WiFi or bluetooth speakers, eliminating the audio receiver interface makes the most sense for anything innovative.