I don’t want my, I don’t want my, I don’t want my Apple TV

In the late nineties, I worked for a dot com startup doing some early work in the digital set top box space.  Video streaming, personalization, web browsing.  It was the sort of thing which only became popular in the home about a decade later.  We were too early (and probably too incompetent).

These days its popular to think that the TV set is due for a change.  Some sort of revolutionary rethinking in line with what Apple have done to the tablet computer, the phone and the mp3 player.  Apple are usually considered to be the people who will lead this revolution (the rumours it will happen any day now have been around for years).  Others think Google might manage it.  And I’ve suggested Amazon could be the black horse.

But the more I think about revolutionizing the TV, the more I realise, I don’t want it to happen.  At least not like a TV version of the iPhone.

There are a few things I have realized about the television:

1. It’s a device for multiple people to watch at the same time
2. It’s about showing pictures and playing sound.
3. UIs for TVs are hard.  And generally ugly.  Your best bet up till now has been to control things with a IR remote control.  Ownership of the remote, and losing the remote have become the cliches of ancient stand up comedy routines.  We are just about entering the period when people might consider replacing their remote controls with mobile phones and tablet computers.
4. No one wants to browse the internet, read their email or post to twitter through their TV.  We might want to browse the web in order to get to YouTube or some other video playing site, but generally people prefer to read things they can hold in their hands.

It has gradually become clear to me that the home user isn’t going to be looking for a magic box – or for extra capabilities of their TV – which will allow it to take advantage of all the new content opportunities the web provides.  No.  They are just going to use their TV to watch programs with other people, together.  They won’t be installing apps on their TV. They won’t be browsing the web on it.  And they won’t be controlling their viewing with the TV’s remote.  They will be doing everything from their phone or tablet.

Think about it for a moment.  You can already watch TV on your phone.  And with airplay you can send anything you’re watching to your TV.  This is fine for an ‘all Apple’ household, but until lots of people get in on the game, I don’t see this as the future.

No the future comes with WiFi Direct and Miracast (plus a lot of extra work).

I’ve explained WiFi Direct and Miracast elsewhere, but to put it simply:  Miracast lets you beam video from your phone – or from any other device – to your TV.  Its like a wireless HDMI cable.

So imagine, if you would, the TV of the future.  It will be a box with no buttons, just a lovely display and a power supply.  Inside it will be WiFi direct ready.  (Hopefully WiFi Direct has some sort of wake on lan functionality, so that you can plug your TV in and put it in a low power mode awaiting a connection.  If it doesn’t, we’ll stick a discrete pairing button on the top)

You come in with your phone, or tablet.  You install an app – which might be something like iPlayer, Hulu or Netflix, but might also be a specialist app perhaps ‘Game of Thrones’.  How you pay for this (one off, or subscription) is up to the app publisher.  The app publisher can also decide if the app contains all the audio/visual data, or if the data will be streamed from some external source.  You play the app, and are offered a number of screens to play the video on.  You select the TV and you are away.  The video is streamed from your phone to the TV set… or better, the TV set.

This world is already (just about) possible with Miracast.  But it isn’t quite enough.  Here are some ways we can improve on things.

Your friend is also watching TV with you, and decides to turn the volume up a bit.  The volume is a feature of the TV, so your friend needs to tell the TV to play sounds a bit louder.  So your friend reaches for his phone.  Now, he doesn’t live at your house, so he won’t have an app for controlling your TV.  There are two solutions:
1. We insist every TV provides a common interface, so that lots of people will make TV control apps.  In which case, he can then just pair with the TV and control it that way.  But this sort of standardisation doesn’t seem to work well.  So the odds are low.  My preferred alternative is to encourage the following:
2. When your friend pairs his phone with the TV, he is told there is a web service available (providing a web server ought to be a common feature of WiFi Direct devices that need to be interacted with) and goes straight to the front page.  At the front page he is given a web ui, and a link to download a better app from whichever app stores the TV company have chosen to support.

What would be even better is if the web app worked by communicating with a simple web service.  Each Web service could be different, but so long as they were simple, hackers could work out how they functioned.  And as a result could develop control apps which work with hundreds of different TV sets – just like multi-set remote controls work today.  In short everyone would have an app which would quickly be able to decide how to control whatever TV they came into contact with – while also having a web app ui workaround in case of failure.

So, this is fine for controlling the TV.  But what about if my friend wanted to pause the show in order to say something?

My suggestion is that along with WiFi direct linking devices, you want to make some other information available.  Possibly provided by a web service as above – but ideally in a more standardized way.  I would want the TV to tell me which device was currently streaming data to it.  And I would want to be able to join that WiFi direct group, to communicate with the sender.  Finally I would like the sending device to also provide me with a web interface – so that I could control it remotely too.

In short, the TV becomes far more dumb than your average Apple TV box is today, and you rely on the smarts of the tablets that control it.  Especially since the apps on the tablets can ensure a far better user experience in the process.

From here we need to consider other devices.  I’m pretty sure the PVR as is will die.  Broadcast TV will gradually wither, and the PVR won’t be supported.  But until this happens, the PVR and cable box will be part of the home entertainment system.  And increasingly we will get video servers which will hold the video data of films we have purchased – or even, perhaps, caches for external video providers.  In any event, we will control these devices in the same way we control the TV: pairing via WiFi Direct, then a web UI and potential app downloads to get to the functionality.  These boxes will stream the video straight to the TV.

We also need to consider audio.  Right now many homes have a TV with speakers, and also a HiFi of some sort.  Let’s rethink this:  Add a few wireless speakers, and let them be sent audio by a protocol similar to Miracast (but perhaps with some additional syncing technology)  Your phone could even become a remote wireless speaker – especially useful if you want to attach some headphones without laying out wires.

At this point we have everything we need to allow app writers to revolutionise television.  I still feel there is a lack of a central TV guide – but perhaps that will be forthcoming now we know we have personal touch interfaces and no longer have to assume everything will be controlled via the screen.

Whatever, we don’t need smart TVs.  We just need good displays, and sensible use of wireless technology.  The Apple TV as is, both is too smart, and not up to the job.  Lets make it simpler, and make the interactions between devices work well.

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