Messages from the Future: How Apple Finally Cracked TV

I seriously debated revealing the future of TV. I worry that I’ll change things too much. I’ve already noticed that little things are different than I remember. Alicia Keys as global creative director of Blackberry?! Seriously, that was totally my fault, that so wasn’t supposed to happen. But as I say, it’s just been little things so far.

Oh what the hell. No one reads this blog right?

So this all came up because I was trying to watch TV last night on a clunky old HDTV, and all I could find were old infomercials.

Which reminds me, we still have Snuggies in the future.

You know what those are right?  Those full-body fleecy blankets with sleeves – comfy as hell?  Those.  Have they taken off here yet? Well, they will. I recall Alicia Keys was photographed texting on her iPhone wearing one and – boom – everyone wanted a Snuggie. I mean I guess it makes sense, if you don’t have money, sex or power, I have to think a Snuggie and some cookie dough ice cream is maybe the next best thing.

So being back here again I am reminded of all the hoopla about 3D TV and 4K being the next big things.

Well, despite all its hype, 3D TV never – ever – advanced past being slightly dumb and underwhelming; the people who bought new TVs specifically for 3D, sort of the same. In fact, before Facebook croaked, Graph Search famously showed that 3D TV was purchased almost exclusively by men who drank Pabst Blue Ribbon. I don’t remember anyone sufficiently explaining that correlation, but Pabst Brewing was so excited about it that all their ads went 3D.

I guess the whole 3D glasses thing was just too cumbersome and annoying for most regular people who weren’t drunk on cheap beer. By double 20 there were even lots of native, glasses-free 3D systems, but then if you tilted your head the whole illusion broke, so a generation of overweight Pabst drinkers went and bought those airplane neck pillows which also had the effect of making them look alert after they’d passed out watching Snuggie ads. Of course Snuggie then started building the neck pillows right into the collars and adding can-holders to the sleeves… it was a vicious circle.

Anyway, nor was 4K “the next big thing”.  I get it though, hindsight being 20/20, it’s easy to look back at the pre-paradigm-shifted TV industry and see why a generation of manufacturers might have focused almost exclusively on image resolution.  It’s mainly what their business had been competing on forever.  Form factor and resolution.  That was the extent of TV manufacturing innovation.   But so myopic was that focus that they completely missed the area of improvement most needed.  And ultimately most desired by consumers.  Even if consumers hadn’t yet realized it themselves, having yet to see it.

For those of us with taste buds, there were 3 general, somewhat overlapping differences between TV in the future and TV that you watch Snuggie ads on today: the OS, the remote control, and the way you used these to access, and interact with, the content.  You’ll note that resolution and form factor were not what changed the TV industry.

For those of us with taste buds, there were 3 general, somewhat overlapping differences between TV in the future and TV that you watch Snuggie ads on today: the OS, the remote control, and the way you used these to access, and interact with, the content.

Incidentally, on this topic of remote controls – in your time there are lots of people proposing that gesturing in mid air is the future of navigating computers and TV. Nyea – no it’s so totally not.  That never caught on. I do recall by about 2014-16 there were a couple peripherals and TVs that were meant to enable this – Samsung, and Sony especially were trying to unseat Apple and went down this path briefly. But in the end I guess we were lazy. I don’t say that to be insulting – it’s just frankly easier to wiggle one finger on a small handheld remote than it is to lift your arm in the air and wave it around in an articulate manner. People always want to argue this – “but joel waving your arms around and making things happen is magic”.  No, no it’s not, trust me, it was tiring and annoying. And anyway I’m just telling you want actually happened.  I even remember reading about some study where someone explained how gesturing in the air, even at the elbow (as opposed to the shoulder), was actually quite a lot harder, by a significant factor, than tapping a handheld device, since for one, it requires your gesturing limb to be generally unsupported and, since momentum builds through a gesture, it must be equally countered by your muscles to slow that momentum and stop. Combined, these factors had the effect of making gestures in air much more work than holding a small device on your lap. So that whole idea died. You know, just FYI. Anyway…

The OS
I guess I could have cut to the chase and said “iOS”, but that’s a cheap shot, isn’t it.

That said, surely you’re not surprised (even if you’re annoyed as I was) that in the future Apple finally launched a home media solution that was so vastly superior to anything developed during the 70-year-old paradigm of traditional TV that it changed everyone’s perception overnight, and that the usual suspects immediately tried copying it?

I know, total shocker, right? Who would have thought.

Sure enough, Apple had indeed “cracked it” as Steve Jobs had famously asserted before passing. That quote marking a parting gift to his Apple survivors, one last reality distortion field from the great beyond.

Even with it’s initial slow start (due to limited network launch partners mostly) anyone who wasn’t overtly biased against Apple could clearly see how much better it was. There was a lot of joyful applause that day at the Apple event as the vision for TV’s future was presented. Mostly because you sort of felt this strange weight lifted. A weight you didn’t realize was even there until it was gone; the inveterate accumulation of every confoundedly obtuse tool you’d tolerated throughout your life, quashed. There was a collective release in the auditorium, everyone had the same reaction – “About freaking time!”

And then there was the other corner. The cynical, sad little corner of beady-eyed squinters poking at their Androids. I think the first reaction from the Apple-can’t-possibly-keep-doing-this-can-they(?!?!) contingent was blustery disbelief and a scrambling to discredit the reveal to save face, most of them having dug a rather big pit prior to launch. The naysayers (friends of the old guard) had brayed relentlessly leading up to the day, “the cable providers are too powerful”, “the networks will never agree”, “the advertisers will abandon it”, “TV manufacturers are already there”, “Google is on their heels” – such that regular people even started to believe… that maybe a real Apple TV would be a dud. But in the end they were all left a pretty toothless bunch since ultimately, it was profoundly great. And in the end it didn’t matter because TV had finally changed.

There have been few reveals in the history of Apple that were as satisfying. The iPhone was one – that moment when Steve repeated “an iPod, a phone, and an internet communicator!… are you getting it?”, and you saw the magic of multitouch on a consumer device for the first time. The classic bit where he pulled the first Nano out of his Levis fifth pocket. And the first MacBook Air – in an envelope.

And finally seeing this – well, it was the way you always wished TV would work. In a flash you realized you had just been beaten down over a lifetime to believe that the obviousness of your own intuition shouldn’t be possible. Like how we passively accepted TV commercial interruptions in the middle of a show, those FBI warnings that inexplicably disabled the skip button, or the criminally, fabricated cost of texting on a carrier network.

Really in some ways “it” wasn’t even some surprising or ingenious leap. I mean in hindsight I’m not sure what anyone thought a bigger idea might be when they’d hyperventilated their wacky Apple TV rumors. The solution was so sensible and obvious it left me wondering what the hell the other manufacturers were doing all those years before Apple came along.

That said, you may be surprised to learn…  that Apple’s invention wasn’t a TV.

In fact what I realized about Apple that day was that the reason they always appeared to shake up new industries, and TV was no exception, was because they offered consumers a perfect new solution – without regard for the legacy businesses and predications. I think Apple looked at these legacy businesses as unwieldy things, grid-locked by their own interdependencies and politics.  When these companies tried to innovate it was always within the existing architecture, so as not to unduly upset delicate relationships, the status quo.  Essentially, no one at the table actually had the power to change the game… except the consumer.

But where consumers had the power, they lacked organization, they lacked the tools, they lacked a meaningful choice.  And that was Apple’s genius.  Apple just empowered them.  Routinely gave consumers a disruptive option.  “Here you go, now, let’s show this industry what you really want.”  And this was true when Apple “cracked” TV. That said, you may be surprised to learn…

…that Apple’s invention wasn’t a TV.

Nope. They made a point about that in fact. I mean everyone “knew” they were launching one that day. But in a classic, only-at-Apple moment of legacy industry shake-up, Tim Cook invited Phil Schiller on stage who built up to the moment where he dropped the bomb “…and today, Apple is ushering in the ‘post television era'”. The room erupted in bubbling laughter and applause. The point he was making was that the old business, and way of interacting with televised media, cable companies who arbitrarily controlled limited and locked bundles of networks, content interrupted by ads, the weeding through countless channels you didn’t want, overly complicated dumb remotes, and so much more, all of that was behind us.

And although I remember a fair number of pundits debating that claim, the new devices indeed weren’t technically televisions. Sure they announced some tear-jerkingly beautiful displays – but none had television tuners. The new devices were just computers.

Phil unveiled 2 product form factors that day: the first was called iTV Mini, an AppleTV box more or less as you know it today, but totally redesigned. It was super slim – like a flatish, squarish, aluminum plate or a blade; the thickest portion housing the ports. Eye level with it, you barely noticed it, but off-angle it was striking. Gorgeous. (By the third version they’d cut out the legacy ports making it even thinner.)

And the other product, the main event, was the new iTV, a screen in 3 sizes, with the box guts built in. The screens were gorgeous in person and had a giant, round-cornered iPad feel about them. Blade-like edges. Very flat. Aluminum back. Even had the requisite front-facing camera.

In all honesty – and I’m remembering out loud here, in some way, even though these were indeed lovely screens, I remember my inner fanboy wanting more. The screens were refined, and the fit and finish was better than any other display on the market, and I’m not sure what I’d hoped for exactly (maybe a smaller bezel?), but this looked sort of predictable. I mean, it looked like an Apple product for sure, all minimalist and clean, but I guess I’d hoped for some profoundly unexpected design-gasm. Well, as I say, I still bought one and came to respect and appreciate it’s design after all. Naturally I bought the biggest one – it was prohibitively expensive. (Incidentally, buying this device was what inspired me to make money selling 3D models on plasticly.com, which I actually don’t think you have yet. Plasticly is the biggest 3D printing retail community on the net. That probably needs to be a whole post some day.) And anyway, years later, that fanboy wish was answered. Around 2018-19 they released the first display ever to utterly lack any bezel at all, where the picture came literally right up to the edge of the display. When it was “on” it was like the lit image was almost floating or projected in thin air. Totally minimal, all picture. No one had a screen like that, lit so close to the edge. It was OLED at some insane resolution (they didn’t call it 8K then but I recall it was in that neighborhood). Stunning. I remember they made one of those Apple videos where Jony Ive and crew spent a fair bit of it talking about how the technology and engineering required to achieve that edge was, like, “totally amazing”. Some new glass bonding process. And of course they’d bought out most of the global capacity.

Even so, as I’ve explained, at first launch the industrial design and resolution wasn’t even the story – those weren’t the big idea. The beauty was in the way it all worked. That’s when you realized things were changing. That’s when consumers got excited.

iRemote
Today with your completely stupid, paleolithic remote control (now, grudgingly, “ours” – thank you very much, time travel), you type a cryptic number, 042 for Adult Swim, say, or flip through a ludicrously long linear sequence of channels, one of which is the “program guide” channel where you find these ugly little blurbs that were graphically designed by some mediocre “Web 2.0” Photoshop reject, describing what’s on. Or you hit “Menu” and the show gets squished in half as you try to tab through the same cryptic mess that way. Sorry cable operators and set top manufacturers, but every bit of that is completely, utterly lame.

iRemote was an iOS app. Naturally, it was included by default in iOS 8 and ran on any iPad / Mini, iPhone / Plus, or iPod Touch. To the chagrin of some, iTV didn’t ship with any of those devices however, it rather shipped with a small typical Apple remote control that allowed users to navigate the on-screen version of the iRemote app (if much less effectively). Even so, anecdotally, no one really used the on-screen version or that little remote. At first critics blasted Apple complaining that it meant customers had to buy an iDevice in addition to iTV. But then the only people who shared that complaint were Android users. And some time later, in a complete surprise and controversial announcement, Apple released an Android version of iRemote, which as I recall turned out not to be such a crazy idea in the end since it opened iTV to a whole new segment and minimized the impact of Samsung and the other iTV competitors who were trying to stand on that platform competitively.

Anyway, with iRemote running on one of your iDevices, you didn’t have to change to a different channel or obscure the on-screen content to see your program guide since all that information was displayed on your iPad’s screen. And you didn’t have to power through the endless list of channels to find the few you like. Rather you assembled your personal, custom collection of favorite networks and shows on a single screen, laid out like large app icons (really they were more like thumbnails, but it’s easier to talk about if you think of them as app icons).

Collecting your favorite shows and networks was sort of like browsing the iTunes Store, only you could move things around. You could select both discrete shows or networks to appear in “My Guide” sort of like putting apps into folders, and once it was loaded with your stuff, you generally used the “My Guide” screen(s) the most for choosing shows to watch.

For me that was an “aha” moment.

Apple’s “My Guide” personalized program guide was to changing the channel what visual voicemail was to an answering machine.

Apple’s “My Guide” personalized program guide was to changing the channel what visual voicemail was to an answering machine. You kind of went “Oh my God. No duh.” Think about it – only the networks and shows you like, with none of the annoying flip-past channels your cable provider hoisted on you through their coarse bundling.

On the My Guide screen you had 3 main semi-segregated sections – the first, on top, was what’s “On Now” – a line up of the show icons – currently on – either because you chose the show, or more often, the network.

Below that, you had your full list of favorite Network icons – aligned under their corresponding On Now shows. So when you swiped through the show icons the network icons moved too (and vis versa).

Finally, at the bottom (scrolling down vertically), you had your full list of favorite show icons (whether they were on now or not).

I should point out that to put a show on the big screen you could do it a couple ways but in either case you had to tap 2 times to switch shows. You tapped either a show icon or a network icon, and then you tapped an area at the top of that to put it on the big screen. I remember whiny critics of the system complaining about this, saying you should be able to tap once – but in use it really wasn’t that big a deal – these people forgot how many buttons they’d had to tap before.  I rather liked it because you came to rely on the idea that you could always see what a show was – see more about it – before you committed.

Tapping network icons worked a bit like folders. It opened the network and revealed show art for what was playing now on that network at the top (something is always playing now at the network level) and below that you had access to all that network’s other shows (similar to network screens in iTunes as I recall). Embedded in the On Now show artwork at top was a “Watch” button, and if you tapped it, boom – the show appeared on the big screen.

There was another sweet little feature – you could choose to join the live show in progress, or you could also choose to start it from the beginning instead. Without paying more. Logical.

That was the network icon, alternatively from My Guide, you could have tapped a show icon.

When you tapped one of the show icons (no matter if it was On Now or not) it opened the show’s screen.  Every show had one, but they rather worked like apps (or “App States” since it was all in the iRemote app). Among other things, it was how producers and networks could offer show-specific info, other episodes and interactive experiences.

Each show’s app state had at least 2 tabs. You’d land on a different tab depending on whether the show was “On Now” or not when you tapped it.

If it wasn’t On Now, you arrived at “Episodes & Seasons”.
There was custom art at the top of this screen, with the next upcoming showtime and the upcoming episode description embedded in it. From there you could tell your iTV to jump to that show once it started, or you could set an alert (which hit all your iDevices). Below that you could select other episodes and seasons from the show archive to watch on demand. You could also watch trailers and read reviews and all the stuff you do today in the iTunes Store. But in this case it happened on the tablet – and didn’t interrupt the big screen – unless you wanted it to.

But if the show was actually running live you arrived at another tab called “Showplay” (A name I hated at first, but got used to).
As on the Episodes & Seasons tab, at the top you had the main show artwork, but this time with the “Watch” button embedded in it. Naturally you tapped that and boom, it’s on the big screen.

Below that was another game-changer – you had access to all the interactive content that the show’s producers had developed. This is what Showplay was about.

Below that was another game-changer – you had access to all the interactive content that the show’s producers had developed. This is what Showplay was about. In the early days most of that was supplementary, sort of like extras on a DVD, but eventually that was where the action was.

Most big show producers eventually took advantage of Showplay, creating games, chat, voting, and other interactive experiences. After an initial period of intense resistance, even advertisers finally figured out how to employ these side-channel experiences, and started participating in new types of shows that actually hinged on this live, articulate interaction.

A New Kind of Show
It was the development of this new kind of content, interactive shows, enabled by Apple’s interactive ecosystem, that ultimately cemented Apple’s dominance in the living room for so many people. Like Angry Birds on the iPhone, these shows came to iconify the new model.

The originator of the most popular of these shows was General Amusements (some production company that got into this early). I have to admit to the guilty pleasure – their shows were insanely entertaining, and captured the system’s potential. Two shows in particular were the big ones that seemed the most popular, one was called “We The People”, co-hosted by John Stewart and Bill O’Reily, and another was called “Mob Pile” with Daniel Tosh (there were a bunch of others but these two were the big ones). Both shows were based on live voting and live feedback.

And it was a marketer’s dream come true. Basically the host brought ideas, people or things out and viewers just voted whether they agreed, disagreed or liked it or not. Or answered simple multiple choice questions about things. This was all done through Showplay. I’ve read that this had been tried before through inferior systems for years but never so successfully. Sound boring? It so wasn’t.

The shows were paced really well. Some were even frenetic with new things to vote on every 15 seconds or so. Others were more story driven and made you want to help, or express your anger, or whatever. But the bread and butter of these were about products. For example in one of the daytime shows, “I Want That!” with Howie Mandel (which was all product-based) a retailer – like J. Crew say, would show options for their upcoming season, beautiful models would walk out wearing the outfits while some designer was interviewed and then Howie screamed “J.Crews new Fall Line – you’ll only see one this season, and its your call – tell us what you want!” and all these numbers start rolling in and a few seconds later – there’s a thumbs up or thumbs down – that fast. And it wasn’t just binary – because when you played your expanded profile included info you opted to share, like age, gender, style, all sorts of preferences.

And the shows could break the data up in different ways live – they’d show maybe what men Vs women voted, or parents Vs kids, or various cities or states. People ended up aligning with all sorts of causes and groups and it told marketers a lot about the viewer’s psychographics. These shows had crews who searched for interesting stories in the data. Depending on the thing being voted the results were often funny or frustrating or heart-warming. And the live, in-studio crowd was always going “ooooh!” whenever tension was created by a vote. They even pitted the studio audience against the rest of the country to see how “normal” the audience was. And I’m telling you they voted everything. Product packaging options, color schemes for cars, flavors for packaged foods, music, casting actors for shows, movie reviews (the We The People movie ratings were the most reliable gauge of a good or bad movie out there), charities for funding, social topics. It went fast. You wanted to vote because you had a direct hand in the creation of these products and things that you would then be able to watch or buy or whatever. Advertisers paid a lot to buy vote segments for their products on the shows, which served to help remove interruptive advertising.

There were also longer form segments where they would bring out random Bozos, neo-nazis and other goofballs who would come on looking for affirmation and more often than not get totally humiliated. Couples who were fighting would each tell their side of the story and the mob would “pile” on the one they thought was wrong. The winner was always pretty affirmed from that.

We The People achieved notoriety and credibility when the 2020 presidential candidates held their debate on the show and it accurately predicted the vote virtually to the state. “GMO food! Lets see the numbers! Red States Vs Blue!  America, VOTE!”

This was a whole new class of entertainment and social interaction.  And most of them worked even if you weren’t watching live, you could still add your vote later (though the host couldn’t respond).  The shows spun off variants related to regions and topics. And most traditional shows started doing it too. Ellen, the Jimmy’s (Fallon & Kimmel) and the other talk shows were easy. Part gameshow, part social experiment and part focus group. In some way you just wanted to know how you measured up with the rest of the world.

Anyway – this was one of the ways marketers made the new “ad-less” model work for them.

Shopping
Then in the third major update of iRemote they added shopping. Everyone talked about “buying the sweater on Friends” in the 90s but even in this time, now, no one has a reasonable way to execute on that. Well, Apple did. So if you selected the new shopping tab in the show or network apps, there were little windows in your iRemote “side-channel” that would display products as they appeared casually in the show.  Not an ad – just a thumbnail.  And like a notification it would then disappear.  Although you could buy stuff right then, you were usually engrossed in your show, so all you had to do was tap the item which would drop it into a viewer, that you could inspect later. From the product view, you could usually replay the scene you saw the product in. This too threw off tons of data for marketers- even when selling their products this way didn’t always make much sense.

Siri
I saw a “prediction” in this time that Apple would use Siri in iTV – it also predicted the use of hand gestures in the air. Well I already told you that the gestures thing tanked, but Siri was indeed part of iTV.

That said, I really hated Siri at first. It worked for some people, but I just always felt like a dork calling out the actions. Sometimes I used it when I was alone, but it was way better to get previews of the content and info on iRemote. Because with Siri you didn’t get all the advance info and interaction the second screen afforded you without interrupting your show.

Even so I have to confess, by 2021-ish Siri actually started seriously kicking butt. I had this one day where I realized it finally understood my personal idiot language – like all of it.   It was when I said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Siri, what was that sci fi movie… with the… you know.. that kid… agh… I don’t remember his name, a bit player from the uh …  he was in the last season, maybe(?) of Mad Men where they did that store… with the big moose… thing? …”

She knew I’d meant Star Wars VIII and the child actor who played Han and Leia’s son. And also informed me that the “moose thing” I’d referred to was Macy’s Bullwinkle parade balloon.  That’s when I started using Siri, like all the time.

Games
Jesus, I haven’t even gotten into games. Ok, real fast  Yes you could connect your peripheral game boxes.  But in short order we generally stopped doing that.  Games and developer apps for iTV were sold in the app store but they had to follow unique formatting from the other iDevices, which everyone screamed about at first. Even so that format afforded added benefits. You could push or pull the content to and from the Big screen. That last point probably sounds humdrum but it was really cool especially when it came to games. I guess it was a little like the Airplay thing today, but by then the developers were really putting the effort into making games designed for the display and interaction layer split. The networking was very fast and easy. If your iPad detected a big screen it alerted you and you could throw the presentation layer (image/audio) up to iTV and the controls stayed on your iPad. If you walked out of the room, with a tap you could pop it right back. It was just effortless.

Wrap Up
With Apple’s iTV, users basically had the best remote control, customized program guide, show interaction platform, and side channel on the planet – all in one device. We had all the content of the iTunes store, all of which was available on all your devices (iCloud naturally) – plus a whole new category of social interactive experiences. And it all worked effortlessly and the devices were well-made (except for a brief but very annoying “lower left green corner problem” which became a huge media dog pile, but Apple replaced those iTVs for free).

The Networks were better able to promote their shows and aggregate audiences, and create an interactive domain for their properties that extended the consumer relationship beyond merely watching linear content once.

And marketers had new, unimaginably powerful tools to engage consumers meaningfully, and collect insane amounts of useful data for the first time in their history.

Do you see what I meant when I said it was so much better than legacy TV for almost everyone at the table?

The casualties of Apple’s living room dominance were generally worthy of their fate.

The cable companies indeed became dumb pipes. But they always were really. It’s relative. It never made much sense that the guys who lay wire should so strongly influence what I watch and how I watch it. The more they fought the Apple iTV migration, and the more they pressured the networks to stay away, the weaker their entertainment services seemed, and the less anyone believed they would ever catch up. They were fighting for stagnation, for legacy, for a self-centered corporate benefit that didn’t make the customers lives any better in the face of such rational improvements elsewhere.

Playstation, XBox, Nintendo… at that point their atrophying from the living room wasn’t a shock to anyone.

Yes – Samsung and Sony fought hard. And they did pretty good replicating similar models. But the action was on iTV.  Lots of people went for the alternatives.  There was a fairly strong Apple-fatigue manifesting by then, mostly kids, but it seemed that fatigue came and went every couple years or so but never really undermined Apple’s foothold.

Advertisers screamed bloody murder at first- fought right along side the cable companies for different reasons, pressuring the networks not to do deals with Apple. All they saw was a world where consumers would pay to disconnect from ads. Their viewers no longer held in optionless captivity – the horror.  But as usual, the advertisers just hadn’t spent enough time thinking about the new models to see the historic options they might have. Thankfully a few renegade advertisers did embrace the change and were some of the earliest to exploit the GA-style shows in service to their clients. But no, the ad business was admittedly no longer about the development of “creative messages”, those interruptive :30 second spots. They became more like business or entertainment consultants really. And although there was some blood-letting in the ad industry at first, they started hiring the right people and then profited hugely.

The Networks that joined early prospered. HBO, ABC, Disney, and the other launch networks, became more popular than ever thanks to their early involvement, good will and experimentation. There was a lot of network squirming and sniping at the very beginning, took forever for CBS to come aboard – though not many cared since “2 And A Half Men” had virtually run it’s course and it had become commonly known that the integrity of CBS hinged on its corporate relationships and not on some moral commitment to honesty, truth or viewers’ value. But even they eventually realized how much more they could do in the new paradigm. Years later as it seemed things had finally settled into balance, virtually every popular network was represented in the iTV ecosystem.

Indeed, Apple had cracked it. Not by playing the game. Not through improvements in resolution.  But they completely changed the way we approached in-home media, commerce and socializing. It took a while, and there were bumps, but they did it.

And as I say, I know, because I’m from the future.