December 7, 2011 at 11:26 am

Opinion: Next-Gen Apple TV Remote Will Be the iPad

This Apple image shows iPads and other iOS devices displaying what the television displays; the next logical step would be to turn the devices into a clone of the television -- more a "mini-me" of the television than a traditional remote control.

There are plenty of reasons not to buy Apple TV or Google TV, and some of them have to do with the people who hold many of the cards being perfectly happy with the way things are today. You can’t really cut the cord if you like television programming, as many of us do, which is why we watch it in the first place. Meanwhile, cable companies are loathe to introduce a set-top box that would place their valuable programs alongside the web and apps, surely eating into viewing time.

But there’s another big reason the television has stalled as an app platform while smartphones, tablets, and even videogame consoles have taken off: the remote control. You can’t touch a television from the couch, and today’s button-based television remotes are barely up to the task of navigating a simple cable menu, let alone the panoply of all the world’s apps and websites, with their diverse designs.

As rumors swirl that Apple plans to sell actual televisions running a next-generation version of Apple TV, the remote control question is more important than ever, especially if Apple TV is ever to become a killer app platform.

I once tested a television-connected PC that came with a gyroscopic mouse that controlled an onscreen pointer, which was about as inelegant as it sounds. Videogame controllers work better for this stuff, which is one reason Microsoft’s XBox and Sony’s PlayStation have made great inroads as television app platforms, even as Apple and Google have lagged. (See’s well-reasoned take on apps migrating to televisions.)

Of course, you can already control the current Apple TV with any iOS device and control Google TV with an Android. But Apple TV and Google TV aren’t full-blown app platforms yet (Google is closer). So those controls are more about navigating menus than enabling true, app-like interaction, which is where XBox controllers designed for gaming have an advantage.

Maybe the iPad shouldn’t be a remote control of the television. Maybe it should be a clone of the television.

That way, you’d be able to “touch” the television from the couch. making the television nearly as natural an app platform as the tablet itself, and Apple’s (and Google’s) interface problems would be over. You’d have to shift your eyes away from the big screen momentarily, but for interactive television dreams like being able to shop for the shirt worn by a particular character on a show, browsing an extensive music library, and even playing some games, you really only need to use the control intermittently. It just has to be good.

Some have suggested that Apple’s Siri voice assistant will act as the main remote control for Apple TV 3.0, which sounds plausible, given Siri’s warm reception on the iPhone 4S. Even in that scenario, an iPad-as-remote would make more sense. It would put the microphone closer to the viewer’s voice than a set-top box would. Voice commands would work much better being issued to a handheld device than to a set-top box across the room — especially given that this control would have to work while sound issues from the television.

Before he died, Steve Jobs said (from Walter Isaacson’s biography),

I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use. It would be seamlessly synched with all of your devices and with iCloud. It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.

We may have finally cracked his code if the next Apple TV, reportedly coming in the second half of next year, uses an iPad as its remote.

(Image courtesy of Apple)

  • Switch

    While I like the idea of using an iOS device as a TV remote, I’d like to present a few counter-points to your argument. Ignoring any other problems (especially price and marketability) with the iPad-as-primary-remote hypothesis, there are two main UI problems:

    1. The iPad, at 9.7 inches, is a pretty huge remote and would be extremely uncomfortable to operate as a remote for long periods of time. It might work as a secondary device to occasionally play games and interactive apps on the TV, but then we run into problem #2.

    2. The main UI paradigm of the recent iDevice generation and all the similar devices (Android, Windows Phone, Kindle Fire, etc.) is “pictures-under-glass.” The display shows you a digital interface that you manipulate by touching the capacitative glass surface. While that’s a huge step up from keyboards, d-pads, and mice for many uses, it is only helpful when you are directly looking at and manipulating the interface.
    When you put a level of abstraction between the touch and the interface, it can cause lots of confusion and lack of any “intuitive-ness.” For example, remember back to when Lion first launched and introduced “natural scrolling” that reverses the previous OS X scrolling direction in order to conform with iDevices. While it makes sense to “push” and “pull” a page on an iPad, that intuition vanishes when you’re pushing and pulling on a separate surface.

  • Switch

    Excuse my long-winded reply, but I do agree with you that voice is a powerful solution. But it has to remain secondary to a tactile remote control, one that you can feel your way around and control without directly looking at. In fact, the clickwheel might seem like a better solution than a touch device.

  • Adil

    There’s a significant cost issue to contend with – is the user required to own an iPad (or iPhone or iPod touch)? Does the TV ship with an iPad, or a stripped-down iPad-like device? Even the cheapest iPod touch isn’t that cheap, but if they made it a dumb terminal (mirrors display, transmits touch/accelerometer input) it could perhaps be cheaper. Perhaps they ship the TV with a “dumb terminal” version of an iPod touch. Call that the new iRemote. Bonus: app developers for that TV platform can assume touch and accelerometer input, just as they do for the mobile devices, so porting or making “universal apps” isn’t too hard.