- Apple, Google and Microsoft are entering the television market and releasing new products
- Some believe high-tech TVs won't sell and will only add confusion to a simple pleasure
- Many are content with the easy functionality of watching TV and do not want changes
The technology industry is absolutely bent on reinventing television.
According to Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, one of his last big accomplishments was figuring out how to make a better TV.
"I'd like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use," Jobs told his biographer. "It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud....It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it."
Since then, the world has gone crazy speculating about how great this iTV (or whatever it's called) will be. It will apparently be powered by Siri, Apple's voice controlled assistant that appeared in the iPhone 4S earlier this year. Analyst Gene Munster thinks it will come in several sizes, be controllable from your iPhone or iPad, and -- this is Apple after all -- cost twice the price of a normal TV.
Apple isn't alone.
Google just released the second version of its Internet-meets-TV software, Google TV. This is despite the fact that first version was such a flop that hardware partner Logitech had more Google TV returns than sales in the first quarter of 2011. (Not surprisingly, Logitech is not going to be on board for round two.)
Microsoft is also getting into the act again, after countless failed attempts stretching back almost two decades. (Remember WebTV?) This time, it's teamed up with TV providers like Comcast and Verizon FiOS to deliver shows to the Xbox 360 game console. The big benefit: users will be able to search for shows by giving voice commands to Kinect, the nifty Xbox add-on that recognizes voice and gestures.
Smaller companies like Roku and Boxee are also in the game.
But nobody seems to be able to answer the big question: what exactly is so broken about TV anyway?
It's true that the TV guide in most cable systems is pretty awful -- it looks like Yahoo circa 1994. It's a pain fiddling with a bunch of different remotes. It might be kind of nice to watch YouTube videos on a big screen in the living room.
But I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that most TV viewers simply won't care enough about any of this stuff to shell out $1,500 for a new Apple TV, or spend a few hundred bucks and countless hours fiddling around adding a new box to their TV set and figuring out how it works.
All of these are destined to be niche products at best -- just like every other attempt to improve TV over the last 20 years.
The tech industry is filled with engineers and geeks. They naturally want to optimize the TV experience, to make it as efficient and elegant as possible, requiring the fewest number of steps to complete a particular task while offering the greatest number of amazing new features.
But normal people don't think about TV that way. TV is passive. The last thing we want to do is work at it.
And right now, we're not working that hard. It's not that tough to keep track of a few favorite shows -- Breaking Bad is on Monday, NFL games happen on Sunday, SportsCenter is every night at 11, and CNN is on channel 56 if something big is happening in the Middle East or Washington. You turn the set on, turn to the right channel, and that's it. Done.
The rest of the time, we're not all that picky. As long as there's something on -- anything -- that is reasonably engaging, we're cool. Most of us are even OK spending a few minutes just shuffling through channels at random. (Remember -- "channel surfing" was used to describe this habit long before "Web surfing" came around.)
Over the years, Steve Jobs himself identified a lot of the reasons why it's hard to change the TV industry. Cable companies give set top boxes away, which makes it hard for anybody else to break in. The cable industry is "balkanized," which makes it hard to pick a single partner like Apple did with AT&T and the iPhone.
But the real clue comes, again, from the Isaacson biography. Jobs talks about having a really tough time balancing his return to Apple in 1997 with his obligations as CEO of Pixar. "I would go to work at 7 a.m. and get back at 9 at night and the kids would be in bed. And I couldn't speak, I literally couldn't, I was so exhausted....All I could do was watch a half hour of TV and vegetate."
That's why we love TV just the way it is. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.