How Apple could make an iPod for television.

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Aug. 22 2006 12:24 PM

An iPod for TV

How Apple could make it work.

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All of which would seem to be an argument for Apple jumping into this market, but not with some hybrid computer-television. The iPod, after all, wasn't a fusion of the Mac and a digital music player; it was its own new thing. In many ways, Apple is uniquely positioned to transform the home AV space the way they transformed the music industry. They have the best interface designers on the planet, and they have immense consumer electronics credibility and brand loyalty thanks to the iPod. They've also developed the open Bonjour standard that enables different components on a home network to communicate effortlessly. Bonjour is central to Apple's AirTunes feature, which lets you stream music to speakers over Wi-Fi using Airport Express stations. This is a great example of what a smart AV network should look like. When you insert an audio cable into an Airport Express, it automatically appears as an option for audio output in iTunes. If Apple built an iTV that worked this seamlessly, that consolidated all its functions around a single remote and established a standard for communication between components, they might well have an iPod-sized hit.

There's one big problem here: An iTV would need to play well with others. Most people aren't just going to chuck their entire system to buy Apple's home theater alternative. Look at me: I'm obviously a believer in Apple's ability to fix this problem. Still, I'd much prefer not to sell my new LCD TV on Craigslist, and Time Warner is forcing me to use their cable box for HD DVR features. So for me, the ideal Apple home AV product is one that somehow makes my existing system work but without forcing me to start over from scratch.

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The beauty of the iPod was that it was a supplement to your existing music gear, not a replacement. Part of the reason that it quickly became a mass success is that it didn't have the "switching costs" that were traditionally involved in moving from Windows to the Mac. If Apple's going to introduce a supplementary product without prohibitive switching costs—something closer to a universal remote than an all-in-one system—it's going to have to deal with dumb components out there that not only lack Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, but can't even agree on the infrared signal for "play." Steve Jobs is famously a perfectionist when it comes to interface design. Could he live with a device that can't reliably turn on a television?

Steven Johnson is the author, most recently, of Everything Bad Is Good for You. His fifth book, The Ghost Map, will be published in October 2006.

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