Questions, Few Answers For Home Theatre

The prospect of an Apple-branded TV has continued to make me ponder the home theatre, and why it seems so resistant to some kinds of change. Despite many similarities between introducing the iPhone and what Apple will face introducing an all-in-one TV, there seems to be something different about the home theatre market. While I certainly haven’t done extensive research, anecdotally, there is this weird protective shield when it comes to the TV. It’s worth considering what Apple will be up against, but it is also instructive to see what has and has not succeeded in home theatre technology.

Why Is a TV Similar To A Cell Phone?

When you look at what Apple faced as it introduced the iPhone, and what they will face with some kind of all-in-one TV, there are plenty of similarities. The iPhone entered what was a mature market for smartphones, at least on the enterprise side. It was like appearing in the PC market in the early 1990’s, where PC’s were dominated by businesses and home use was just starting to gain traction. It really took Windows 95 to make a home PC useful to the average person. The iPhone was the same way. There were plenty of functional smartphones on the market, and the space was over a decade old when the iPhone appeared. But the iPhone changed many of the rules, and ignored the enterprise. Android followed their lead, and now the two absolutely own the smartphone market.

The TV market is one of the most mature consumer product markets out there, outside of major appliances. About the only products that are older are the radio and music playback equipment (going back to the original Victrola from the late 1800’s). TV’s have been with us a long time, occupy a particular space in most people’s homes, and have been used more-or-less the same way for 6 decades: you present video and sound. The extras have come along over the years: home recording starting with the VCR and now the PVR, improved picture, improved sound, the ability to access media on home media servers and over the Internet. game consoles. But think about how you use a TV today: for the vast majority of people, it is a passive “let’s watch” experience. Except for video games, few people are (or seem interested in) interacting with their TV shows and movies.

Many prognosticators predicted Apple would fall down in phones because of the traditional nightmare of dealing with carriers. Before the iPhone, carriers insisted that they control what a user could install, what software the phone came with, and how it was packaged, named and branded. Apple didn’t do that. The iPhone you buy unlocked is the same as the one you buy at a carrier store. Apple’s only real concession was allowing the phones to be locked to a carrier. Otherwise, no iPhone comes with custom software for the phone, and you don’t buy apps from the carriers, you buy them from Apple.

The same can be said about any sort of integrated decoder/PVR: the cable companies each have their own implementation, they have their own branding, and they limit what you can do with recorded programs. Some work over coax cable. Some use satellites, some work over DSL. They have their own semi-custom PVRs and decoder boxes, which governs how TV is delivered, viewed and controlled in your home. These companies also control what extras are available on any box they provide (such as Netflix, MLB or other extra features).

For both issues, Apple overcame them and became a dominant player in smartphones. Apple is still the only one that essentially dictates terms to the carriers. The iPhone became the archetype for what a smartphone has to do, and how it should be used. Hypothetically, the same should be possible for a TV.

But Look At What Has Worked

The thing is, attempts to unify, simplify and integrate home theatre components has never really taken off. Multiple attempts at home theatre PC’s have all fallen flat. TiVO introduced us to the PVR, but the vast majority of people use a carrier-provided box. Very, very few try to use custom machines like Slingbox. The only real effort that has taken form over the years are smarter remote controls to control the disparate boxes people have: the TV, sound system, PVR, game consoles and things like the AppleTV. Even then, people seem bizarrely content with having 2, 3 or more remotes sitting beside their chair or couch. It’s something that a surprising number of people not only “live with”, but seem uncomfortable with the idea of giving up what appears to be perceived control over each individual device. It’s almost as if people want one remote per device.

In some ways, it is a very strange evolution. People seem content to simply add  more boxes to the mix, rather than trying to find ways to get rid of them. Oh, there’s a new widget that gives me some new extra feature or service? Find an empty port, plug it in, and off you go. Something else the replaces an existing box? No problem, out with the old, in with the new. But present them with something that simplifies or unifies, and there seem to be resistance. It is the oddest thing.

It’s almost as if people view their home theatre much like they view their kitchen: a collection of specialized tools, unified into a single system. People don’t look for stoves that are also refrigerators and dishwashers. They aren’t looking for spoons that double as knives, whisks and blenders. There are few general purpose items in a typical kitchen. Instead, it is a workshop of specialized tools, all of which come together to form a single, logically cohesive whole. We don’t do this with PCs, smartphones, tablets or even larger items like our car or truck. There, we tend to look at them as multipurpose devices. We want them to fulfill multiple, and sometimes contradictory, requirements. And it isn’t like cost is the driving factor here: a good stove costs as much or more than a tablet or a smartphone.

It Is Perplexing

This is a perplexing problem. A bigger question then arises: is the home theatre really in a state of chaos, and in need of “fixing”? It would seem that it is, on the face of it. Logically, it would seem to make sense that something that reduces the actual complexity would be welcome. But the apparent complexity doesn’t appear to be that high. Sure, there are lots of pieces. But a large number of people seem pretty happy with having those pieces, in part because it buys them flexibility. They can upgrade one piece without having to toss out everything else. Again, look at the kitchen: I can replace my stove or mixer without having to also replace the blender, toaster, measuring cups and spoons.

I still don’t have an answer to the question “why are people so resistant to changes that would simplify the home theatre?” And it is this unanswered question that still makes me cautious about an Apple TV. Sure, logically a single, fully-functional (and hopefully upgradeable) device that replaces the disparate collection of boxes and such should be a success. But in 6 decades, with some attempts at simplication, that has yet to happen. Maybe Apple has figured it out. But I’m not entirely sure.