The late Steve Jobs told the handpicked scribe of his biography Walter Isaacson that he had figured out “one more thing” — how to unite the world of Apple devices and services with the ubiquitous television. Jobs is no longer with us, but at the AllThingsD conference, Apple CEO Tim Cook confirmed that television remains “an area of intense interest for [Apple],” which is “going to keep pulling this string and see where it takes us.”
The rest of us are left to put together the pieces: What did “the wizard of Cupertino” mean when he said, “I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use. It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud. It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.”
In a widely-circulated AllThingsD article posted on Monday, Brightcove CEO Jeremy Allaire theorizes that the much-gossiped-over prospect of an actual Apple TV — as in a physical television designed and sold by Apple — is “a complete sideshow for a broader and bigger phenomenon and transformation for how we all use TV, and… this transformation is already being rolled out by Apple.”
He argues that Jobs’ plan was to extend iOS apps — and especially iPad apps — literally to the television, using Apple’s wireless AirPlay technology, which can already control Apple TV, as well as sending whatever it displays on its screen to a television. In that case, the iPad turns into a touchable, nearby version of the boob tube.
We agree with much of what Allaire says, having argued pretty much the same thing about six months ago: that by turning the iPad into a clone of what you see on the screen, and marketing it as a sort of remote control for Apple TV, Apple could sell a ton more iPads while creating a new access point into the television that skirts the fat-and-happy cable and satellite providers as they drag their feet on releasing app-capable set-top boxes. This would turn the television into the killer mainstream app platform we already know it can be.
Allaire goes so far as to suspect that Apple has been intentionally downplaying AirPlay, even as it ramps up its features on both its computers and iOS devices, ostensibly so that the competition doesn’t see what is coming until it’s too late. Perhaps Apple needn’t worry about that, though — Google’s Android platform lacks any wireless technology on the level of AirPlay, and only geeks know what DLNA is. Apple is already so far ahead of any other company in turning the television into an app platform that only an idiot could fumble its lead, and Tim Cook is no idiot.
If Apple can turn the television into an app platform by using the iPad as a combination remote control and distribution point for mainstream users, the same way it turned the smartphone into a must-have object for everyone from teenagers to senior citizens, it will impact all sorts of industries, but what concerns us here is music.
Here are a few areas of impact for music after Tim Cook and the rest of Apple complete Steve Jobs’ vision for the television, assuming Allaire and I are right about the iPad (and to a lesser extent the iPhone) using AirPlay to turn the television into an app platform:
You’ve no doubt heard the news that everything sounds terrible now due to cellphone speakers, crappy earbuds, and the fact that nobody buys stereos anymore. Some of that is exaggeration, but there’s truth to the idea that for many of us, sound quality has declined over the past 10-plus years, even as everything else seems to be progressing. I’ve said it before, and will surely say it again, but the only speakers people seem to buy anymore are surround sound speakers for their televisions and various iPod/iPhone docks (we like the Jambox series these days).
Television-as-an-app-platform combines both of these trends, so that the best speakers in the house will become part of the music app ecosystem. As part of the deal, we should see more of an emphasis on sound quality and surround-sound formats.
Live, Pay-Per-View Music
It’s already possible to buy boxing matches and throw a party around them at your house, and plenty of people already do exactly that. However, most music is way more of a niche thing. Apps on the television would let you do the same thing those boxing fans do, when your favorite band plays a webcast show or throws an album release party — even if the programmers at your cable or satellite company have never heard of them. Perhaps you’ll even invite some friends over who are fans of the same band, and split the cost.
Visualizations, Discovery, Navigation
With the television as a music app platform, that screen is going to have to do something. The size of most television screens and the fact that they occupy a prominent place in many homes offer new possibilities for displaying visualizations that react to the music as it plays, displaying real-time lyrics, finding music within your collection, and browsing recommendations based on your taste.