It’s widely accepted in the technology industry that Apple is working on a smart, internet-connected TV device. But what do we really know about the ‘iTV’ so far?
There’s been a lot of speculation flying around about an Apple TV set for several years, and many times it has been reported that Apple has been on the brink of an announcement – only for our hopes to be dashed at the last minute.
Many analysts and commentators, though, believe that an Apple television set is only a matter of months away. Gene Munster of Piper Jaffray has predicted several times now that Apple will launch a smart TV set while Jean-Louis Gassée, a former president of Apple’s products division and now a partner with venture capital firm Allegis Capital recently said that such a development has “got to happen”.
Steve Jobs’ vision
One thing we’re fairly certain of is that the idea had become an obsession of the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Details from Walter Isaacson’s authorised biography reveal that Jobs believed that the company had made a big breakthrough on its path to creating a smart television.
“He very much wanted to do for television sets what he had done for computers, music players, and phones: make them simple and elegant,” Isaacson wrote.
“‘I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use,’ he told me. ‘It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud.’ No longer would users have to fiddle with complex remotes for DVD players and cable channels. ‘It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.’”
The simple interface Jobs refers to in Isaacson’s biography has been widely assumed to be based around voice controls, similar to Siri, the iPhone 4S’ voice-activated personal assistant.
“It’s the stuff of science fiction. You sit on your couch and rather than fumble with several remotes or use hand gestures, you simply talk: ‘Put on the last episode of Gossip Girl.’ ‘Play the local news headlines.’ ‘Play some Coldplay music videos.’ Siri does the rest,” wrote Nick Bilton in the New York Times.
However, there’s some doubt as to whether voice control technology is advanced enough to be the primary control system for a television set, as Macworld contributor Ian Paul writes.
“The fact is, technology fails from time to time. So if Siri can’t understand what you mean when you say, ‘record Synecdoche tonight’ or stops working altogether, you need to have an alternative. Perhaps an iPhone or iPad app would be the answer,” Paul writes.
However, Jobs didn’t actually specify that voice control was what he was referring to when he mentioned “the simplest user interface you could imagine”, so there’s no guarantee that he wasn’t talking about motion sensors – like Microsoft’s Kinect – or something completely different instead.
What will it actually ‘do’?
Stewart Alsop of Alsop Louie Ventures, also a board member of TiVo and Sonos, reckons that an Apple television in the 15- to 19in range and running the company’s mobile operating system, iOS, is in the works.
Such a device would not only display video, but also could provide internet access for playing games, run apps and offer access to social platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Google+, Alsop said.
Over the summer, a former Apple exec spoke to DailyTech on condition of anonymity, confirming the company’s plans to make a smart TV set, saying that it would “blow Netflix and all those other guys away”.
However, it is clear that competitors are desperate to find out what the Apple television set will actually do. No one really knows yet, but according to analyst Jefferies analyst Peter Misek: “They hope to avoid the fate of other industries and manufacturers who were caught flat footed by Apple. [But] it appears that mainstream TV manufacturers are likely to be at least six to 12 months behind in a best-case scenario.”
Of course, there is already a product called the Apple TV. It, however, is not a television set, but merely a set-top box that bridges the gap between the internet and a standard television set.
The Apple TV has long been described by Apple as a ‘hobby’ – a word that Jobs himself used – but sales of the second-generation of the device have been solid, if unspectacular. But if Apple wants its internet-connected TV to be called Apple TV then it faces a choice between renaming the current Apple TV or discontinuing the product altogether.
However, there is a school of thought that the name could in fact be ‘iTV’. It makes sense, as it fits in with Apple’s nomenclature, and retains the simplicity that’ll ensure that no-one could be in any doubt as to what the product is. The name does, though, potentially clash with that of British television company ITV.
Peter Misek, the analyst at Jeffries whose latest note to investors on the subject of an Apple smart TV has been analysed in detail by Fortune this week, refers to the ‘iTV’.
Jeff Robbin in charge?
Last month, Bloomberg reported that three insiders with “knowledge of the project” have confirmed that Jeff Robbin, the software engineer who built iTunes, is guiding development of the Apple television.
So who is Robbin? Well, Jobs apparently considered Robbin – who had been brought in to the company when Apple bought SoundJam, creators of the digital music player of the same name – so valuable that he wouldn’t let him meet a Time magazine reporter without the reporter agreeing not to print Robbin’s last name, in case he was poached by a rival. Robbin was also said to be a key influence in persuading Jobs that iTunes should be compatible with Windows operating systems.
Sharp working with Apple towards mid-2012 launch?
Misek’s report also names Sharp as Apple’s partner in the project. Apple will take over one of the production lines at Sharp’s Gen 10 Sakai facility for the iTV, he believes, with production beginning in February 2012.
“For iTV we believe that Apple will take a line at the Gen 10 Sakai facility and produce a modified version of the Amorphous TFT. We believe retooling of the line has begun or is about to begin at the facility with February as a preliminary time frame for commercial production. This would put an iTV launch as early as the middle of 2012, which aligns with our other iTV checks.” Misek said.
As part of the same deal, Apple will take over the whole of Sharp’s Gen 6 Sakai facility for production of displays based on IGZO technology for its next-generation iPads and iPhones, Misek said. This is a hefty investment for Apple, which is pumping in somewhere in the region of US$1bn – more than Sharp’s entire annual operating income.
However, previous estimates have put the launch a little later than mid-2012, with the New York Times reckoning 2013 was more likely. Stewart Alsop thinks that Apple is looking towards getting the Apple television out in time for Christmas 2012. As NYT’s Nick Bilton says: “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”
At the moment, though, we still have more questions than answers.