posted by Thom Holwerda on Fri 11th May 2012 19:10 UTC
IconThe next frontier for Apple - and other technology companies - to conquer: the television market. Terry Gou, chairman of Foxconn, has confirmed his company will be building a television for Apple in conjunction with Sharp. Since I bought a brand-new top-of-the-line TV late last year, I've been thinking a lot about what could be improved about the state of TV today, and as crazy as it seems, I'm actually not that dissatisfied.

Since I had an unexpected (but quite welcome) financial surplus late last year, I decided to buy a top-of-the-line TV for the first time in my life. Up until that point I had mostly bought bargain TVs, focussing mostly on a decent price, as opposed to quality and design. This time around, however, I knew exactly what I wanted: a very specific type of Sony Bravia.

Sony has a line of what I would call 'design' televisions that sport a very unique look (yes, that stand is basically a brushed aluminium brick with speakers), unlike anything else on the market, which Sony calls Monolithic Design. They started working with this design only a few years ago, and every time I paid a visit to an electronics retailer, I would sneak a peek at one of these TVs, mumbling to myself about how I would one day own one.

Late last year, the day had finally come, and after spending an honestly inappropriate amount of money, I brought the Sony Bravia KDL-40NX720 home - 40" of razor-thin top-quality LED TV goodness. I've never felt remorse or any kind of doubts over this purchase; picture quality is breathtaking, and it's a perfect match for my minimalist (completely clutter-free) living room and Harman-Kardon audio equipment (which has matching design). If only all Sony products looked this good.

In any case, after six months of using this thing, I've gotten a pretty firm grasp of what Apple could possibly improve about the whole TV experience, from buying, to installing, to actually using it. Remember that I'm Dutch, and as such, your experience will most likely differ significantly.

As far as buying goes, I was in luck, since Sony's range of Monolithic Design televisions is quite small, with usually only two variants (in my case, 40" and 46") on the shelves. Since I didn't care about the other gazillion (much cheaper) sets, I had little to no trouble when it came to the buying experience. I'm guessing Apple will offer two to four sizes of otherwise identical hardware, similar to their other product lines and similar to this specific Sony niche.

Setting the TV up was a breeze too, and this is most likely where my experience will differ from much of the rest of the world. The KDL-40NX720 has a PCMCIA-like slot in which you shove a CI+ module from your provider containing a credit card-sized chip card. Turn the TV on, punch in the correct frequency corresponding to your postal code (3-4 numbers), and press okay. That's it. Everything else is done automatically, and within 30 seconds, you're watching TV. All channels in your cable package (regular set+additional HD channels, in my case) are right there.

This really couldn't be much easier, and unless Apple opts to forego traditional TV channels entirely, it simply cannot be any simpler than this. Every country has its own way of distributing TV, and Apple will have to fall in line here pretty much like they had to fall in line with existing GSM and CDMA networks with the iPhone.

If they, on the other hand, forego traditional TV channels, things could indeed by made simpler, but I don't think this will go down well. iTunes is virtually devoid of video content in The Netherlands and large parts of the rest of the world, so the value proposition of relying on iTunes distribution is zero. Even if they manage to finally get their act together and offer a decent selection of content, there's still the issue of all the local content that people demand from their TV.

What good is a TV to me if I can't watch Dutch news, talkshows, series, events, sports, and so on?

As far as using the KDL-40NX720 goes... Well, that's where Apple can - and will - leapfrog the competition. The KDL-40NX720, technically, has all sorts of advanced features like a browser and YouTube integration, but it's so horribly slow and has a terrible interface, so I simply just don't bother. The TV can play content directly from your PC over the network, but as usual, codec support is relatively limited and the file browser is confusing.

The TV is absolutely riddled with functionality. As in, it's bursting at the seems with stuff I didn't even know it had until I would unintentionally run into it. For instance, in what is surely one of the creepiest features ever (on a Sony product, no less), it has a small integrated camera with face recognition and tracking, so the TV can turn itself off if you're not sitting in front of it or display a warning if you sit too close (I shat bricks when I found that out). It has a hard disk recorder in there too (which requires a USB drive), wifi, 3D, and god knows what else. I once told it to make me coffee, but that it did not do.

The end result is that it tries to do way too much, making each of these features half-hearted, lacklustre, and unpleasant to use. If this reminds you of many pre-iPhone smartphones, you're not alone. It's in this specific area where Apple can - and will - leapfrog the competition with a smaller but far better implemented set of features in an iMac-like package.

What's going to be interesting is just how much of a computer this Apple television is going to be, and just how versatile it's going to be. Is it actually going to be an iMac, or will it run iOS? Can you use it as a monitor? How many inputs is it going to have, if at all? How many outputs? Can I hook it up to my external (and far superior) sound system? Can I only control it with an iOS device? Is Siri going to work properly when I'm with a group of loud and chatty friends?

Other than software, the content question is going to be the toughest nut to crack for Apple, since every country has its own systems and approaches to both analogue and digital TV, and in many cases even each provider has its own way of doing things. This is quite dissimilar from mobile telephony, which is relatively uniform with either GSM or CDMA.

I'm interested in finding out what Apple has up its sleeve here. I have zero interest in buying a TV from them, but I am interested in the effect it'll have on the rest of the industry. The iPhone had a massive impact on the mobile phone market, and an Apple television will undoubtedly do the same to the television market.

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