Even More Thoughts on an Apple Television

This one just won’t dislodge from my mind. I’ve been pondering some more about an Apple Television, and I see two different ways to interpret this. Set aside the challenges of trying to supplant the traditional TV (and the home theatre that surrounds it), and consider to possible things.

Steve Thought He Cracked TV

One of the last things attributed to Steve Jobs is that he had “cracked TV”. While the premise that Apple is coming out with some kind of new device has set the pundits and analysts in a tizzy, there is a presumption here around that statement. First is that he did figure out something viable. While Apple, under Steve, has had a recent string of hits, keep in mind that the man was not perfect. He has had a few product whiffs in his time. His first, and biggest, was NeXT. It was a technological marvel that some could argue was ahead of its time (and the available technology). However, that doesn’t mitigate the fact that it was essentially a commercial failure. Part of being smart and imaginative isn’t just coming up with cool ideas, but coming up with products that are actually commercially viable. After his return to Apple, Steve did have one notable miss: the Apple G3 Cube. It was a beautiful design, but as a computer, it was a bit of a dud. Sales of the device certainly didn’t live up to the hype.

Okay, so we know that Steve was human, and that he could make mistakes. Let’s take as a given that Steve did have a viable idea. There are two assumptions that also have to hold true for a Apple Television to have a shot. The first assumption is that he actually told anyone about it, and told them about it in sufficient detail for them to be able to execute on the vision. The second is that, if he did tell someone, that the listeners got the idea sufficiently to be able to execute it all. Even if they had all of the detail, the philosophy and thinking behind the idea, whoever was told could have misunderstood or misinterpreted some or all of the vision. It wouldn’t be the first time. The concept behind misinterpretation is illustrated in a diagram on this site (it’s got a copyright, so I won’t reproduce it here. It may also still be in Oakland’s book on Total Quality Management).

But what if Steve didn’t actually tell anyone? Or he only hinted at what he was thinking? Now we have the potential that people are doing what they think Steve would do. Comments along the line of “Steve would never do that” or “Steve would never have approved” are starting to appear more and more around recent Apple products and activities. The problem is that we can never truly know what Steve would have thought of something. We can guess, based on past experience and behaviour. Sometimes that guess will probably be right. But Steve could surprise from time to time (I would never have thought, in a million years, that Steve try to atone for the iPhone 4 antenna issue, even if he did apologize with a bunch of caveats. That he was willing to speak about it at all was a shock to me). If Apple is working on some kind of television based on what they think (or are guessing) Steve envisioned, then I would have some trepidation on that point. Frankly, the folks at Apple need to start to forge their own path. Yes, things will change. But it was going to happen sooner or later.

It May Not Be A TV At All

The prevailing presumption is that the “TV solution” that Steve came up with involves some kind of all-in-one type of television, or that it involves any new hardware at all. One key concept I come back to with disruption is that the thing that disrupts an industry often isn’t like anything the incumbents offer. If you look at the disrupted markets over time, yes, the disruptor shares certain functional similarities. It may even share some technology. But it is usually so different from what it is competing against that it is a new class of device. The iPhone brought a slightly different approach to small form-factor touchscreen tablets, but it was very different from what people thought of as a smartphone. The PC, which contributed to the disruption of the mainframe, looked and felt nothing like a mainframe. The UNIX servers, and the Linux servers that followed, also were very different from mainframe computers.

Go a little ways back in time: cable-driven excavators were disrupted by hydraulic equipment. People didn’t just shrink the cable-driven units down. They went with a different path. Go way back in time, to the early 1900’s. The car basically disrupted a horse-based transportation system. Horses weren’t displaced by “better horses”. They were displaced by a technology that did much of the same things as a horse, but did so in a very different way.

To presume that Apple’s potential disruption of TV will be to introduce a TV may be an incorrect assumption. It is entirely possible that whatever Apple tries, it may not be, or even look like, a traditional television set. It could just be a different take on the existing AppleTV. Who knows. Again, this all presumes that the points I made earlier (about: a) Steve telling someone; and b) they understood enough to execute) hold true.

Again, all we can do is wait and see (and continue to ponder and pontificate while we do 🙂 ).