iTV Is a Frame

August 31st, 2010

Apple is holding a special event this Wednesday and, besides an updated iPod nano and iPod touch, rumors are that they will announce a new version of the AppleTV based on iOS.

I do not have any inside information, so I do not know if that is true, but it makes sense, and I have a few ideas for what it can be. In short: applications can change the family room as much as they have changed the phone.

Apps, Not Applications

Applications on iOS devices, at first, do not seem like much of a revolution over personal computers. We have used applications on our Macs and Windows PCs for decades now; yet people conceptualize an iOS application as something very different from a computer application, as symbolized by the term “app.” They are not merely the same thing running on a different kind of device. They are different.

PC applications have always felt like abstractions, artificial and disconnected from reality, kind of like quantum physics. It might work, but it does not fit how we conceptualize the world and how things work. This is because PC applications work through abstraction; that is, rather than manipulate content directly, we work through three intervening pieces: our physical input devices—the keyboard and mouse, the cursor, and the application’s user interface widgets. In Microsoft Word, you do not grab a paragraph and drag it to a new place—you move a mouse to move a cursor to select the text to move it. You do not so much work on content as give the application instructions, which actually manipulates the content on your behalf.

As a result, PCs have never felt like the application they are running. They are a computer that runs applications. The iPhone and iPad’s magic, however, is the hardware is a frame for content. There is no intermediary between you and the application, and in many cases, the content itself. You interact with the application and the content directly. Whatever application it is running, it is no longer an iPhone or iPad—it is that content. If you are using Google Maps, it is a map; if you are using Star Walk, it is the stars; if you are using CalcBot, it is a calculator; if you are reading a book, it is a book; if you are watching a movie, you are holding that movie.

This changes the very nature of the device. The PC is a PC; no matter what you are using it for, you will never forget you are using a PC. When using iOS devices, though, they fade into the background. The iPhone and iPad, then, are merely frames for the application and content, and so they are no longer computing devices in the traditional sense. They are whatever application they are running.

Applications can do this for the television, too.

Apps, TV

When we watch television, we go through several intermediary steps to watch what we want. We have to first deal with the cable operator’s set-top box user interface, then watch a channel, and then finally the content we are actually interested in.

iOS will not turn the television into whatever application it is running1, but just as the iPhone or iPad are frames for content, applications could make the television a frame as well. We would not have to worry about what time certain shows or events are scheduled for, or what channel they happen to be on. We would just go to that application. If I want to watch baseball, I start the Major League Baseball application and pick a game. If I want to watch Curb Your Enthusiasm, I just go to it and watch. When those applications are running, my television may as well have been created by them specifically for watching their content.

Applications would allow us to go directly to the content creators themselves, and allow them to create the experience they really want for their content. No one else to deal with, just the creator. No need to deal with a cable company, their terrible user interface, or their lack of certain content. iTV is a frame.

This, of course, is perfectly possible technically, but cable companies are understandably afraid of content creators selling directly to consumers. This appears to be the largest holdup in an iTunes video subscription.

But there is more to it than getting network-created television shows, sports and news directly from the source. They are not the only content creators.

The web is full of incredibly well done short films, like Dan Brown’s Your Lucky Day or Garrett Murray’s Forever’s Not So Long, but the only place to watch them is on the web. iTV running iOS, though, would place them on the same level as large film studios. People could watch them—even buy them—in the same way they buy films from top studios. That, to me, is the most exciting part. This would give incredibly talented people a fantastic platform to deliver their work. I would absolutely pay for more films from Garrett Murray and I suspect others would, too. Why wouldn’t I, when they do such a good job and I can watch it right on my television? Everyone becomes a broadcaster.

The iTV is a frame.

In episode four of the Talk Show, John Gruber mentioned something he is excited about for iTV: games. There are all kinds of games that could take advantage of the larger screen, ability to integrate multiple players at a time, and iPhones or iPads.

The iTV is… Okay. You get it. The beautiful thing about applications on our televisions is we do not know what people will come up with, but someone will, and it will be available for us to use. That is incredibly exciting.

  1. Not yet, anyway; consider Microsoft’s Kinect and it is rather clear interacting with a television screen will be much more direct quite soon. []