Apple’s iTV, Steve Jobs’s last project, may transform home entertainment

November 2, 2011

In his recent biography of Steve Jobs, author Walter Isaacson says the Apple visionary revealed to him that he had finally “cracked” the problem with TV and was working on what he called an “integrated television set.”

Dubbed “iTV” by the tech press, the late Jobs’s final project appears to be the creation of Apple’s own TV product and content solutions to compete with cable.

Analysts have been speculating for years that Apple would move into the living room in a big way, but until now the company has been content with the Apple TV, a set-top box that is modest in functionality, hasn’t been marketed aggressively and as a result has not caught on with the mainstream. Jobs himself once referred to it as a “hobby.”

If Apple is seriously looking at the living room as its next battleground, that could be great for consumers. But more selfishly, it could be great for me.

I live in an area of north Brooklyn called Greenpoint. In my neighborhood, there is only one option for wired cable television: Time Warner Cable.

Time Warner isn’t exactly best cable service I’ve ever seen — and why should it be? It has a monopoly in lots of areas in New York. There is no pressure on the company to innovate or even provide decent service, because consumers don’t really have a choice.

If you get frustrated, you can sign up for a satellite service such as DirecTV or Dish Network. In fact, I did just that a few weeks ago, after a particularly bad outage of Time Warner’s service.

But those providers have their own sets of problems. With DirecTV you can’t really get on-demand TV (on-demand content has to download over your Internet connection), and the company has found it hard to strike deals with certain channels. That means sometimes you can’t get a channel at all, or it’s offered only in standard definition. Oh, and during bad storms it goes out completely.

Sometimes it feels like I’m using rabbit ears to get a picture.

Of course, this isn’t just a Brooklyn problem. It’s a problem all over the country.

So the evidence that Apple is about to venture into home entertainment is pretty exciting.

The company has been slowly but surely working on a collection of products and software that is beginning to focus more on stationary experiences.

In the latest version of its mobile operating system (iOS), Apple expanded a technology called AirPlay to include device “mirroring” between the $99 Apple TV and the iPhone, iPod touch or iPad. The technology allows you to beam content from your mobile devices to your television, including video, audio and even games in real time. Suddenly, what you can do with your TV is a much larger offering.

Apple is making the device in your hands the hub in your living room simply by interfacing through the Apple TV. Imagine if the company decided to produce a line of televisions with similar technology built in. The Apple TV already runs the same mobile OS as the company’s phones and tablets — why wouldn’t a TV set?

That could mean that not only would those devices be able to talk to and interact with one another, but they would be able to run the same or similar apps.

Why are apps important? For starters, it’s possible that the solution to our TV problem is to start offering apps instead of channels. John Gruber — a popular Apple-focused blogger — has suggested that very thing. What if apps were channels? Instead of subscribing to those hundreds of channels you skip past when you’re trying to find something to watch, you could select a la carte options specifically tuned to your tastes.

Already, channels such as CNN provide apps that let you view live broadcasts, and great content-makers such as HBO give you the option of watching their shows and movies on your iPad and iPhone. Why stop there?

If Apple can bring these kinds of partnerships to the next level, it could change the entire paradigm of TV-watching and home entertainment. Instead of being locked into big, messy plans on big, messy devices, you may find yourself picking and choosing your services like you pick your apps, perhaps paying a small fee each month to keep the fresh content coming in.

Of course, Comcast and Time Warner aren’t going to go quietly into the night. To stream all of that great content, you need bandwidth. And guess who owns those pipes?

Getting all those content providers and cable companies to play nice is a gargantuan task, but if there’s any company that can do it, it’s Apple. If Apple pulls it off, it could do for our TVs what it did for our phones. Needless to say, I’m keeping my fingers firmly crossed.

Joshua Topolsky is the founding editor in chief of the Verge, a technology news Web site debuting this fall, and former editor in chief of Engadget.

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