Apple made the Apple TV a little better yesterday. It plays 1080p video now. The neatest thing, sort of, is that it works with iCloud, so if you buy a TV show on your iPad or iPhone or iMac, it appears on your Apple TV. It’s good technology in that it’s designed so you won’t notice it’s there, kind of like the Apple TV itself, which is a tiny black box that fits in the palm of your hand and whose presence is practically swallowed by a TV of any size worth watching. It just works. Unlike your cable box.
I was in Seattle last week, so Microsoft could show me the future. One little piece of it was an app for the Xbox 360. A Comcast Xfinity app, to be specific—it’s TV-on-demand from your cable provider, built into the Xbox. A few other providers are hooking up with the Xbox too. It seems like an insignificant thing, in some ways, but it also seems likes one possible, maybe obvious, maybe inevitable, future of television: Your cable provider is just an app on a beautiful box, made by Apple or Microsoft.
Raise your hand if you like your cable guide. Or the actual cable box that connects to your TV, delivering FX and AMC and ABC or whatever other channels you watch, and not much else. I didn’t think so. It’s slow, ugly and difficult to do anything—Time Warner really should be charged with a hate crime for theirs, because they clearly loathe humanity. The thing is, cable companies aren’t software companies. They suck at making interfaces and software. You know who’s pretty good? Microsoft and Apple. The new Xbox interface is attractive and easy to use. You can talk to it, or wave, if you want. Call out Harry Potter, and it’ll bring up any Harry Potter stuff it has access to, from any service—Netflix, Zune, whatever. (BTW, a good way to think about the Xbox? It’s Microsoft TV. And they’ve got 66 million of them out there.) While I think the new Apple TV home screen is kinda ugly, it’s a bajillion times better than anything a cable provider shipped in nearly every metric.
This is what things might look like, roughly: You will boot up your TV, along with the box of your choice. Maybe it’s made by Microsoft, maybe it’s made by Apple (maybe if you’re unlucky, it’s made by Google). When the screen lights up, you’ll have a bunch of apps, like launch Hulu or Netflix or MLB.TV or YouTube. Or you can launch your Time Warner app, and channel surf, using an unshitty guide, designed by whoever made your box (which of course connects to all of your other devices, like your phone, tablet, computer, etc. You bought them all from the same company, right?). Or maybe you just want to watch Law & Order, so that’s what you punch in, or call out to your TV. It finds Law & Order, wherever it is, whether it’s on Netflix, on Time Warner. Easy.
The trick is getting cable providers to give up a lot of the control they have right now over your miserable television experience. To let themselves become, effectively, just a dumb pipe, just another an app. They’ve spent a lot of time fighting the forces driving things in that direction, trying to keep people in a walled garden where they own the plants, the soil, and the sky above it. The wireless industry went through a similar process too, until the iPhone came along and blew open the gates, speeding up the inevitable by a generation.
So why would they agree to become just another app on somebody else’s box? Because it’s just how things are going, says Microsoft chief genius Craig Mundie, and the cable companies are totally aware of it. The average Xbox Live user now spends 84 hours a month on the service—and that’s not just gaming, that’s watching Netflix and Hulu or ESPN—closing in on the 120 hours the average person spends watching television a month. And some surveys say millions are dropping traditional cable subscriptions.
It won’t happen overnight. There are some technical hurdles, for one, like shifting from a broadcast model to an internet protocol approach to distribute television channels, to make it technically feasible, for instance. And seeing the light, that we live in a world overflowing with content, isn’t the same thing as running toward it. So even if cable companies know the future is either you watching their content in a window on your Microsoft or Apple TV, where their stuff is just one app out of hundreds, or not at all—instead of a dedicated box of awful that they’re changing you tons of money for every month—they’re not going to make that push any faster. The choices might be adapt or die, but death will have to come a little closer.