Although Mr. Jobs was referring to Apple’s plans to build a full-fledged television, he was not actually referring to the TV set, which is how the comment has been widely interpreted. Instead, it is becoming clear that Mr. Jobs was talking about Siri, Apple’s new artificial intelligent software on the iPhone 4S.
Apple engineers and designers, spurred by Mr. Jobs, have been struggling for years to find a new interface for the television. One of the biggest hurdles, according to people with knowledge of the project, has been replacing the television set’s annoying best friend: the awkward and confusing remote control. Apple would give people a way to choose the content on their television that is as easy as choosing the content on their iPod, iPhone or iPad.
Alternative remote ideas floated by Apple included a wireless keyboard and mouse, or using an iPod, iPhone or iPad as a remote. None of these concepts worked. But there was one “I finally cracked it” moment, when Apple realized you could just talk to your television.
It’s the stuff of science fiction. You sit on your couch and rather than fumble with several remotes or use hand gestures, you simply talk: “Put on the last episode of Gossip Girl.” “Play the local news headlines.” “Play some Coldplay music videos.” Siri does the rest.
Of course this experience goes beyond just playing TV shows or the local news. As the line between television programming and Web content continues to erode, a Siri-powered television would become more necessary. You aren’t going to want to flip through file folders or baskets of content, checking off what you want. Telling Siri to “play videos of cute cats falling asleep” would return an endless YouTube stream of adorable napping fur balls.
The television project has been in the works for sometime. I first heard about Apple’s television plans over a year ago.
At the time, an individual who has knowledge of Apple’s prototype supply chains overseas told me they had seen some “large parts floating around” that belonged to Apple. This person believed that it “looked like the parts could be part of a large Apple television.”
I immediately began snooping around, asking Apple employees and people close to the company if a full fledged Apple Television was in the works. Several people, all speaking on condition of anonymity for obvious reasons, told me that nothing was actively being built, but — and this was a big but — I was told repeatedly that Apple would eventually make a television. “Absolutely, it is a guaranteed product for Apple,” I was told by one individual. “Steve thinks the industry is totally broken.”
Mr. Jobs reiterated this sentiment in his biography, explaining to Mr. Isaacson that an Apple television “will have the simplest user interface you could imagine.”
So what could be simpler than barking commands to your television?
On my quest to learn more about the Apple television project, I learned that executives at Apple knew as far back as 2007 that the company would eventually make a dedicated TV. This realization came shortly after the company released the Apple TV, a box that connects to any manufacturer’s television to stream iTunes content. Consumers did not flock to the Apple TV, and rather than abandon the project, Apple began calling it a “hobby.”
But that hobby could soon reap astounding financial returns. A recent report issued by Barclays predicted that if Apple made a television set, excluding content deals, Apple could generate an additional $19 billion in revenue a year. This number would not be a stretch either; Barclays said in the report that Apple would only need to capture 5 percent of television buyers to reach this goal.
So where’s the Apple television? The company still has quite a bit of work to do on the project. Apple has perfected ultra-thin, portable devices — the Macbook Air, iPhone and iPods, for example — but it has not applied this innovation to gadgets that hang on a wall, yet.
The company also needs to wait until the cost of large displays falls. Although some 42-inch LCD televisions from mainstream consumer electronics companies can cost as little as $500, the Apple television would include computer electronics and other technology that may make the price uncompetitive. And as my colleague Nick Wingfield recently noted, Apple is no longer the high-priced producer in any category it has entered. The company is now close enough that it could announce the product by late 2012, releasing it to consumers by 2013.
It is coming though. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.