As you read through all of the coverage of the mythical Apple HDTV (or iTV), a lot of it focuses on the nuances but no one seems to know what the product is actually going to do or why we would want to buy it. What would an Apple TV’s differentiators be? Will it be revolutionary or innovative? Is Apple looking to take an everything but the kitchen sink approach taken by other TV manufacturers (i.e. the multi-tasking social media control center) or will they focus on creating an easy-to-use home entertainment product? I think that Apple, renowned for focus and simplicity, is going to strive for creating the ultimate entertainment experience for the living room. “Entertainment” includes watching TV shows and movies, playing games and listening to music, of course.
This got me thinking, as Apple likes to innovate versus create, what technologies are in the marketplace today that can be integrated into an Apple HDTV? What will make the Apple HDTV easy to use? I can imagine the presentation of iTV like this: An Apple exec walking through all of the complexities of today’s home theater: All of the cabling, lots of components, the need for physical media for the best audio and video, and the feeling that you need an advanced degree to make it all work properly. So, here’s some of the potential technologies Apple could use to create that great home entertainment experience.
Eliminate the Components: If you want to get the best audio and video from your home theater, you are going to have to deal with some level of complexity. Between connecting all of the gear, configuration settings and the need for audio and video calibration, many consumers are probably not getting the best experience possible. My thought is that Apple will attempt to eliminate the need for a home theater receiver. Apple will move some of the functionality such as audio decoding into the HDTV itself and the set will only have a couple of HDMI inputs for legacy components. The idea is to eliminate the need for any other components. This will avoid all of the complexity of cabling and making sure the components work together properly. You’ll notice today, the current gen Apple TV has a number of options on how to hand off audio and video to the receiver or TV. It feels very un-Apple like and I’m sure they want to eliminate this complexity (THX Media Director is a new standard that handles this problem across components).
Audio: Without an A/V receiver, how do you connect speakers? One option is to include high-quality speakers on the TV itself but I’ve always felt that it’s not as immersive as a surround sound set up. Another option is that Apple could implement the new WiSA standard for wireless speakers. The speakers would then provide their own power eliminating the need for a separate amplifier. Why not use AirPlay? It’s a possibility but significant changes to the protocol would be required. For one, AirPlay supports CD-quality audio but only in stereo, not surround. WiSA, on the other hand, supports up to 24-bit, 96 kHz uncompressed high definition audio and can handle 7.1 surround sound. Also, as AirPlay relies on existing wireless networks, it’s more prone to interference. The WiSA standard dictates that audio is delivered over the less used 5 Ghz band and it actively finds unused portions of that spectrum. Finally, WiSA provides hooks for sensing the location of each wireless speaker. A number of companies are already signed onto the WiSA standard including Aperion, Polk, Klipsch, Pioneer and Sharp.
Video: For display technology, the rumor is that Apple is using IGZO ( Indium Gallium Zinc Oxide ) panels from Sharp. While similar to current LED technology display technology, the properties of IGZO panels offer a number of advantages. In particular, IGZO panels can provide a brighter picture than today’s LEDs with the same amount of power or achieve the same performance with less power. Also, IGZO panels are supposed to be more uniform across the panel in picture performance. What’s interesting is that there are no commercial devices on the market today that use IGZO panels, so what’s Sharp doing with all of the ones they are manufacturing? (CNet reports they might be used in the iPad 3) In the Steve Jobs biography, Walter Issacson relays a story of how Apple locked up the only supply of small hard drives for the first generation iPod. Perhaps Apple is attempting to do the same thing here in order to control the supply chain and keep competitors at bay. My expectation is that whatever panel technology is used, it will provide 1080P video resolution and support a number of frame rates including 24 FPS.
User Interface: To operate the device, the on-screen UI will probably borrow from the current Apple TV. For a remote control, I expect Apple to include some simple remote similar to the one that ships with the current Apple TV. And yes, I’m sure Siri will somehow be in the mix. What will be more interesting is how the various iOS devices, the iPhone, iPod Touch and the iPad will interact with the set. Will they also function as game controllers? Hence, it’s how Apple eliminates the need for a console in the living room.
Content: Currently, Blu-ray offers the best audio and video experience in the home (but not the most convenient). Apple could remove the need for Blu-ray by upgrading the audio and video quality of TV Shows and movies served up by iTunes. With consumers purchasing larger screens for the home, 720P video is not enough. To match Netflix and VUDU’s streaming quality, Apple will need to serve out 1080P video and Dolby Digital Plus surround sound. To really shake things up, Apple could roll out an alternative to pay per view or all-you-can-watch viewing models in the market today.
But what about the DVDs and Blu-rays you already own? Imagine if Apple provided a similar service to their iTunes Match music service. Imagine if you could import your entire Blu-ray and DVD collection and then Apple gave you access to a higher quality cloud-based version. Obviously, the tough part here is getting permission from the movie studios. However, it’s conceivable given Samsung’s new 2012 Blu-ray players that let you rip DVDs and store them in the Ultraviolet cloud.
By taking a simplified approach that would eliminate the need for many of the components in your living room home theater, Apple could create a price competitive product. One product in the market today that takes this “all-in-one” approach is the Bose VideoWave HDTV. While the Bose HDTV may offer convenience, it comes with a high price tag. I would expect an Apple HDTV to be more price competitive and easier to use. Of course, an Apple HDTV may include the “one more thing” none of us have thought of.