Apple Television: What We Can Learn From Tim Cook's Recent Comments

Following the Apple announcements last week, Apple head Tim Cook was interviewed by Charlie Rose. (The first hour aired last week and can be watched after the jump, the second part premieres tonight.) During the conversation, Rose brought up the often-talked about Apple television that has been in development at the Cupertino company for years. Tim Cook always knows how to phrase his answers so that they aren't too revealing, but his response to this question might tell us something about the direction Apple is taking in developing a television.


Its well-known that Steve Jobs' final project was an integrated Apple television which would likely disrupt the cable television industry. In Walter Isaacson's authorized Steve Jobs biography, it was revealed that Jobs wanted to change the television industry and even believed he had figured out how:

"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.'"

That quote is, at very least, three years old. When can we expect an Apple television? What do Tim Cook's recent comments tell us?

Here is what Cook said on Charlie Rose, which you can also watch in the clip above:

"There are lots of things we have an interest in but we know that we can't do everything great."


Rose then asked about the often talked about Apple Television project, to which Cook responded:

"TV is one [category] that we continue to have great interest in," Cook said smiling. "So I choose my words carefully there. You know, TV is one of those things that if we're really honest, is stuck in the 1970s. Think about how much your life has changed and how all the things around you have changed, and yet when you go in your living room to watch the TV, or wherever it might be, it almost feels like you're rewinding the clock and you've entered a time capsule and you're going backwards. The interface is terrible. It's awful! And you watch things when they come on unless you remember to record them."

Rose asked "Then why don't you [Apple] fix that?"

Well, I don't want to get into what we're doing in the future but we've taken stabs with Apple TV and Apple TV now has 20 million users, so it's far exceeded the "hobby" label that we put on it. And we've added more and more content to it, so there is increasingly more things you can do on there. But this is an area we continue to look at.

So what can we learn from those comments?

  • Even though they've been thinking about making an Apple television for at least the last four years, its something they continue to have "great interest in." Cook recently revealed that the company had been working on the Apple Watch for the three years, so its not unusual for  a product to go through this many years of tinkering.
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  • I think his most telling comment is that with the modern television "you watch things when they come on unless you remember to record them." If you read between the lines he's pointing towards a different distribution method. It seems to suggest some kind of on demand system where everything licensed will be accessible any time on demand. However, it doesn't tell us what kind of system this might be. For instance, here are a few options:
  • It could be an a-la-carte / all-you-can eat subscription thing ($100 a month and you get everything)
  • A per channel app (a la subscribing to a channel like HBO, and getting all their content)
  • or maybe even a allotment subscription (you pay $50 a month for 50 hours of watching anything, or $100 a month for 150 hours of anything available on the device).
  • Of course, all of those ideas would require massive deals with all of the television networks or else they wouldn't work. So when Tim Cook says "There are lots of things we have an interest in but we know that we can't do everything great," maybe this is a case of a situation where it's not the right time yet.
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  • Another quote: "The interface is terrible. It's awful!" And this might be the most obvious, as we expect whatever Apple produces to be a drastic change in style and in function from established tech. I currently use Tivo and even though their interface is dated, it is much better than the last Time Warner box I had. The look and function of the television OS is something that has been a long time coming. Look at the interfaces on the game consoles (even last generation) and you'll see things that look and operate 100 times better than most of the cable box interfaces we have today.
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  • And lastly, Cook mentions that Apple likes to plan ahead and introduce technology into their products that will pay off in future years. The one instance he points out is the Touch ID sensor introduced on the last iPhone 5s, which is being used in the newly announced Apple Pay. It was sold as a security feature to unlock your phone, but it will later serve to validate your Apple Pay transaction. Many people didn't see this coming, but I did when the announcement was made. So what might Apple be introducing in their modern products that may someday pay off in a Apple television?
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  • I think the most obvious one would be Siri and voice dictation. Those two features could vastly improve the function of operating a television: "Siri, is Breaking Bad Season 2 on Netflix?"
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  • The remote control: When Apple came out with the Apple TV and it only had a few buttons, people were shocked at the simplicity. But chances are the Apple television won't even come with a remote control at all. Yes, we'll use Siri and voice commands, and there will be an app on all iOS devices to control the interface. That probably includes...
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  • The newly-announced Apple Watch. Not only will that have the ability to tap controls or activate Siri, but imagine turning the digital crown to fast-forward, or control volume. I'm probably missing less-obvious opportunities such as how a heart rate sensor could be used for the Apple television.
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  • Another thing Tim Cook raved about during the interview was Beats' music subscription app, and more specifically the system they developed to suggest music based on your mood. Most other suggestion systems work based on "if Customer A liked X and Y and you liked X, you might also like Y." But that system is very flawed. Netflix has one of the best-developed recommendation engines out of all the big tech companies and its still not great. So what can the Beats recommendation system tell us about Apple's television? Imagine a "Genius" system that no only gets to know you and your preferences, making suggestions, but also is able to recommend a new movie or television show through a few questions based on your current mood? That could be interesting if it was not just a gimmick or obvious but implemented in a similar way to how Beat used it in their music subscription app.
  • You can watch the entire first part of the interview in the Hulu embed below:

    Fake concept header image by Martin Hajek