An iPod for TV

How Apple could make it work.

A few weeks ago, my colleague Paul Boutin observed in these pages that Apple had once again failed to release a home media center. He argued, persuasively, that Apple was sitting this out because the dream of a holy “convergence” between computer and home theater system is misguided. “When you use a computer, you want to lean forward and engage with the thing, typing and clicking and multitasking,” he wrote. “When you watch Lost, you want to sit back and put your feet up on the couch.”

I think Paul’s absolutely right about the limitations of media center convergence. That doesn’t mean Apple shouldn’t bring an iTV to market, though. Apple has an opportunity here, but it is not a matter of merging the computer with the home theater system. Their opportunity lies, simply, in fixing the way we watch media from the couch—because today’s home theater systems are fundamentally broken.

One of the ironies of the last decade of technological change is that things that used to be difficult for ordinary folks to master—setting up an e-mail account, getting an Internet connection—have grown far simpler. Meanwhile, lots of things that used to be easy—say, changing channels while watching TV—have gotten more perplexing. You know the drill: You try to change the channel using the TV remote when you actually need to use the cable box remote (or the TiVo remote), and suddenly the screen goes blank because it’s on Channel 4 instead of Channel 3. I know many people who have printed instructions near their media system that explain how to turn it on or how to turn up the volume.

It is fair to say that it is now significantly easier to configure a new computer for Web and e-mail access than it is to assemble a home AV system. Want to set up a home theater? Not only do you have to decide between RGA, composite, component, DVI, and HDMI cables, you then have to explain to the receiver/amplifier which component is using which cables, and which inputs those cables are connected to, all by issuing inscrutable commands via the remote control, with on-screen feedback that might as well be coming from a first-generation DOS interface. And then you have to teach the master remote control about all the different components in your system—that is, if you don’t want to constantly juggle five different remotes.

My wife is a very tech-savvy person who spends hours each day at her PowerBook. But she is mystified by our home theater. Every time I leave town something goes wrong—the inputs on the LCD get switched, the cable box gets turned off—and I have to troubleshoot over the phone. A telling case study is the Logitech Universal Remote I bought and configured last month. This is the best universal remote I’ve tried thus far. (I’ve gone through about four of them.) The key selling point for me was that it had prominent buttons for TV and DVD and Music at the top. Press one of them, and the remote instantly turns on all the relevant components. Sounds ideal, right?

Well, it turns out that things aren’t that simple.

The problem is that most of my components “toggle” between on and off. If you try to turn on a component that’s already on, it turns off, and vice-versa. The Logitech device tries to remember the state of all the components, but the second anyone switches off the receiver or the cable box by hand (or by another remote), the whole thing gets out of sync. This happens constantly. My wife now refuses to use the remote because it’s completely unreliable.

To summarize: I bought a device designed to make a complicated home theater system more intuitive, and it can’t even manage to turn the television on! (Let me interrupt with a message to all of you who are furiously composing e-mails right now to tell me about Logitech’s help function or some hack that will solve my problems. I know. The remote works fine for me, particularly now that I’ve spent five hours configuring it.My point is that you shouldn’t need “help” to turn on the television, and it shouldn’t take five hours to configure a remote control.) 

I realize this sounds like a Seinfeld routine—What is the deal with remote controls?—but my troublesome universal remote is a symptom of a fundamental flaw. None of the components in the system know about any of the other components in the system. My universal remote, smart as it is, can only have one-way conversations with the TV and the cable box. It tells them to play, or pause, or switch channels. But the TV and the cable box never tell the remoteanything. If my remote knew that my LCD screen was already on, it wouldn’t bother trying to turn it on a second time (and thus end up turning it off by mistake).

Most of the baffling complexity of today’s home AV stems from this limitation. This confusion isn’t just limited to the remote, of course. When you’re setting up a home theater, there’s no such thing as plug-and-play. Plug a TiVo into your system, and your television has no idea what happened. Plug a digital camera into your USB port, and not only does your computer know you’ve attached a camera, it usually manages to launch a photo management application without even asking. Particularly if you’re using a Mac.

All of which would seem to be an argument for Apple jumping into this market, but not with some hybrid computer-television. The iPod, after all, wasn’t a fusion of the Mac and a digital music player; it was its own new thing. In many ways, Apple is uniquely positioned to transform the home AV space the way they transformed the music industry. They have the best interface designers on the planet, and they have immense consumer electronics credibility and brand loyalty thanks to the iPod. They’ve also developed the open Bonjour standard that enables different components on a home network to communicate effortlessly. Bonjour is central to Apple’s AirTunes feature, which lets you stream music to speakers over Wi-Fi using Airport Express stations. This is a great example of what a smart AV network should look like. When you insert an audio cable into an Airport Express, it automatically appears as an option for audio output in iTunes. If Apple built an iTV that worked this seamlessly, that consolidated all its functions around a single remote and established a standard for communication between components, they might well have an iPod-sized hit.

There’s one big problem here: An iTV would need to play well with others. Most people aren’t just going to chuck their entire system to buy Apple’s home theater alternative. Look at me: I’m obviously a believer in Apple’s ability to fix this problem. Still, I’d much prefer not to sell my new LCD TV on Craigslist, and Time Warner is forcing me to use their cable box for HD DVR features. So for me, the ideal Apple home AV product is one that somehow makes my existing system work but without forcing me to start over from scratch.

The beauty of the iPod was that it was a supplement to your existing music gear, not a replacement. Part of the reason that it quickly became a mass success is that it didn’t have the “switching costs” that were traditionally involved in moving from Windows to the Mac. If Apple’s going to introduce a supplementary product without prohibitive switching costs—something closer to a universal remote than an all-in-one system—it’s going to have to deal with dumb components out there that not only lack Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, but can’t even agree on the infrared signal for “play.” Steve Jobs is famously a perfectionist when it comes to interface design. Could he live with a device that can’t reliably turn on a television?