The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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What's next for TV?

In a post yesterday, I offhandedly referred to “giving up TV.” But like giving up Facebook, very few of us have actually given up TV. What’s happened instead is that (like with Facebook), TV has become a problem.

Sure — historically, TV has probably lost whatever monopoly it had on our total cognitive-surplus, staring-at-screen time. It also may have lost a fair degree of its cognitive priority. For instance, when I recently needed to cut some money from my monthly household budget, I dropped my cable TV, switched the internet to DSL, and kept my phone’s data plan — not the decision I would have made three years ago.

But I probably watch more TV than ever now. It’s just coming in the form of DVDs, video games and Netflix streaming on my Wii, and catching up via Hulu, The Daily Show, etc. on my computer. But — wait. See what I just did there? I just ran together everything I do on the big, stationary screen that sits in my living room (called a television) and the short-to-medium form video originally broadcast for that screen, but which I can’t watch there (called television). And both big, stationary screens that we watch from 6-10 feet away and short-to-medium form broadcast video seem to have a pretty firm lock on our psyches and social practice. They’re powerful, versatile, and fun.

One of the things I loved from the Steve Jobs/Bill Gates joint appearance at D5 a few years ago — a really illuminating talk that I periodically return to, that holds up well and has new resonances now — is how they analyze the natural form factors for digital media. And it sort of divides pretty cleanly, with Jobs (big hit then: iPhone) focusing more on smaller forms and Gates (big hit then: XBox) on bigger ones. Gates, I think, doesn’t get enough credit for his vision here:

Walt: What’s your device in five years that you rely on the most?

Bill: I don’t think you’ll have one device. I think you’ll have a full-screen device that you can carry around and you’ll do dramatically more reading off of that.

Kara: Light.

Bill: Yeah. I mean, I believe in the tablet form factor. I think you’ll have voice. I think you’ll have ink. You’ll have some way of having a hardware keyboard and some settings for that. And then you’ll have the device that fits in your pocket, which the whole notion of how much function should you combine in there, you know, there’s navigation computers, there’s media, there’s phone. Technology is letting us put more things in there, but then again, you really want to tune it so people know what they expect. So there’s quite a bit of experimentation in that pocket-size device. But I think those are natural form factors and that we’ll have the evolution of the portable machine. And the evolution of the phone will both be extremely high volume, complementary–that is, if you own one, you’re more likely to own the other.

Kara: And then at home, you’d have a setup that they all plug into?

Bill: Well, home, you’ll have your living room, which is your 10-foot experience, and that’s connected up to the Internet and there you’ll have gaming and entertainment and there’s a lot of experimentation in terms of what content looks like in that world. And then in your den, you’ll have something a lot like you have at your desk at work. You know, the view is that every horizontal and vertical surface will have a projector so you can put information, you know, your desk can be a surface that you can sit and manipulate things.

That idea of “the 10-foot experience” is really powerful to me — even though my living room and TV set are clearly a lot smaller than Bill Gates’s. And the whole point of it is that it’s heterogeneous and versatile — not just in terms of the kinds of machines and platforms that run on them, but in terms of the use of the space itself.

And here’s Jobs, equally visionary, if not more so. (Apologies again for the long blockquote, I like the banter.)

Walt: So what’s your five-year outlook at the devices you’ll carry?

Steve: You know, it’s interesting. The PC has proved to be very resilient because, as Bill said earlier, I mean, the death of the PC has been predicted every few years.

Walt: And here when you’re saying PC, you mean personal computer in general, not just Windows PCs?

Steve: I mean, personal computer in general.

Walt: Yeah, OK.

Steve: And, you know, there was the age of productivity, if you will, you know, the spreadsheets and word processors and that kind of got the whole industry moving. And it kind of plateaued for a while and was getting a little stale and then the Internet came along and everybody needed more powerful computers to get on the Internet, browsers came along, and it was this whole Internet age that came along, access to the Internet. And then some number of years ago, you could start to see that the PC that was taken for granted, things had kind of plateaued a little bit, innovation-wise, at least. And then I think this whole notion of the PC–we called it the digital hub, but you can call it anything you want, sort of the multimedia center of the house, started to take off with digital cameras and digital camcorders and sharing things over the Internet and kind of needing a repository for all that stuff and it was reborn again as sort of the hub of your digital life.

And you can sort of see that there’s something starting again. It’s not clear exactly what it is, but it will be the PC maybe used a little more tightly coupled with some back-end Internet services and some things like that. And, of course, PCs are going mobile in an ever greater degree.

So I think the PC is going to continue. This general purpose device is going to continue to be with us and morph with us, whether it’s a tablet or a notebook or, you know, a big curved desktop that you have at your house or whatever it might be. So I think that’ll be something that most people have, at least in this society. In others, maybe not, but certainly in this one.

But then there’s an explosion that’s starting to happen in what you call post-PC devices, right? You can call the iPod one of them. There’s a lot of things that are not…

Walt: You can get into trouble for using that term. I want you to know that.

Steve: What?

Walt: I’m kidding. Post-PC devices.

Steve: Why?

Walt: People write letters to the editor, they complain about it. Anyway, go ahead.

Steve: Okay. Well, anyway, I think there’s just a category of devices that aren’t as general purpose, that are really more focused on specific functions, whether they’re phones or iPods or Zunes or what have you. And I think that category of devices is going to continue to be very innovative and we’re going to see lots of them.

Kara: Give me an example of what that would be.

Steve: Well, an iPod as a post-PC…

Kara: Well, yeah.

Steve: A phone as a post-PC device.

Walt: Is the iPhone and some of these other smart phones–and I know you believe that the iPhone is much better than these other smart phones at the moment, but are these things–aren’t they really just computers in a different form factor? I mean, when we use the word phone, it sounds like…

Steve: We’re getting to the point where everything’s a computer in a different form factor. So what, right? So what if it’s built with a computer inside it? It doesn’t matter. It’s, what is it? How do you use it? You know, how does the consumer approach it? And so who cares what’s inside it anymore?

And that sort of seems to be where we stand right now when it comes to TV: caught between all of the different services and hardware devices competing for that 10-foot experience and the emergent category of these post-PC, video-capable handheld devices — tablets, phones, game consoles, plus the screen of your laptop/desktop PC in the middle.

There are a couple of things from Jobs’s appearance at this year’s conference, D8, that follow up on this exchange. The first, which was better publicized, was Jobs’s comparison of post-PCs like the iPhone and iPad and traditional laptop and desktop PCs to cars and trucks, respectively. The analogy being — just as in the early 1900s, most cars were initially trucks, then smaller cars emerged that were better tailored for urban and suburban living, smaller, post-PC devices like the iPad weren’t going to eliminate traditional PCs, but would gradually replace them as the dominant form of consumer computing. It’s a powerful, provocative idea; 2007 Jobs was clearly more skeptical towards it, more inclined to think that the PC was going to morph into something else.

The other is Jobs’s discussion of the balkanization of the television business — that is, the business of getting content to those screens, not the content providers as such: the multiplicity of settop boxes and lack of genuinely national providers or international standards that prevented any company, from Apple to Google to TiVo, however technologically sophisticated, from rolling out a clear go-to-market strategy. This, I think, does seem to explain why, despite all of the local innovations in DVRs, net-connected game consoles, streaming content, and so forth, TV still seems to be forever putting the pieces together.

Last, finally, is the whole consumption/production imbroglio that similarly washed over the iPad. Is the TV space “merely” a space for consumption? Is that a bad thing? Or could there be new/emergent ways to create/contribute/share/connect there, too?

What do you think? What’s next for TV?


I have a hard time understanding why anybody pays for cable TV at this point, when you can view all the cable shows you want either online or via netflix. So I think one prediction that’s fairly easy to make is that cable TV providers will see their numbers shrink, especially if the economy remains on shaky ground.

The number of channel choices will probably shrink, which is a good thing. Nobody — NOBODY — needs hundreds of tv channels to choose from.

I won’t say any more because I’ll go off on an anti-TV tirade and I know how popular those are.

Number 1 reason to pay for cable (if you’re into this sort of thing): live sporting events. Maybe not for much longer, but the options for watching live sports online mostly suck, and that’s putting aside the issue of whether you have a computer of some sort hooked up to a larger screen or projector so you can watch with others.

Tim Carmody says…

That’s reflected in the economics of the thing — ESPN gets more money from cable providers than any other basic cable network, and between the additional pay packages, pay-per-view, and so forth, sports looms large.

XBox is experimenting with streaming ESPN for a fee as part of XBox Live. (Increasingly convinced Gates/Microsoft don’t get enough credit for innovation in this sphere.) We’ll see if sports content providers don’t look for other ways to market and stream directly to consumers. And if they do, whether it’s to set boxes like XBox, post-PC devices like the iPad, traditional PCs, or a mix.

ESPN on XBox sounds way better than ESPN on the web–since that’s only available if your ISP signed up for the service (individual user accounts aren’t worth the hassle?)

Is this a good time to squee about how much I love that Wii has Netflix streaming? It’s so perfect I feel like every content company should be doing this.

Other random comments/thoughts:

I’m reminded of Russell Davies’ posts about how the ubiquity of screens makes them mundane and boring. And the recent BERG post about tinkering with ubiquitous/boring tech to find out what else you can do when you combine several items.

It also seems worth noting that I’m writing this from a living room couch in viewing range of a laptop, a tv, an iPhone, an iPad, and there’s a Chumby (not turned on) hiding behind a stack of DVDs on top of the ‘media center’ (or whatever we call that piece of furniture these days). It feels like there’s still a lot of room for things to shake out of this array of viewing devices.

Tim Carmody says…

Seeing as I’ve become completely Wii + Netflix dependent, I concur. Although I’m jealous of XBox (and to a lesser extent PS3) owners — their internet, movies, media consumption on their one box is way more robust.

For instance: why is the web browser on the Wii so terrible? Why aren’t there dozens of channels you can buy or download like WiiWare that focus on email, YouTube, etc.?

Tim Carmody says…

Also, about tech mashups — half the fun/serendipity/innovation comes from doing familiar things on different screens from usual. Checking my email on your TV, streaming a movie on your game console, watching a basketball game on your telephone. I think/hope that’s where we continue to head.

Matt P says…

I agree with Tim that a lot of the current innovation in screens is putting familiar content on new screens — TV on your phone! Google on your TV! — but what I’m longing to see is the innovation that goes a step beyond and gives us content that plays out across multiple screens, or uses those multiple screens to do something new.

This happens in trivial ways already, like using your iPhone as a remote control for your home media system; but I’d love to see something that takes an ecosystem of four different screen sizes (phone, tablet, laptop, and TV) and works the relationships instead of just swapping content around from one to the other.

Matt P says…

To give an example, here’s an idea I had for an iPhone / Android app: through a timer or audio cue recognition, synchronize a comment track with a TV show or movie. While you’re watching Ghostbusters (or whatever) on your TV, you can post comments about particular scenes and lines, then see your friend’s comments pop up on your phone at the *exact point* in the movie or show where they made them. It’s like pop-up video, but using a second screen / device to avoid detracting from the main event.

Or: imagine that your remote has a speaker in it, or you’re using your iPhone as a remote. The audio commentary track comes out of that speaker, rather than the audio on your TV. It’s like the director/writer/critic is next to you, rather than speaking out from the television. And it’s easier to pay ambient attention to both.

How much of what’s currently shown on the television screen could be shown on a remote with a touchscreen? The TV menu (things like contrast, setting the time, etc.), especially anything with any kind of drill-down, definitely; tracking upcoming shows (the built-in guide you get with cable); comments and chat present a new kind of content to augment this.

I just read this article about smart remotes, so I am all about rethinking the remote. Remotes with screens, speakers, multitouch and other more sophisticated input, accelerometers, gyroscopes, Bluetooth rather than optical sensors. There are a lot of ways you could see the new generation of smartphones (and tablets) influencing remotes.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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