Patents Pondered: Apple Poised to Free Your TV?
You're out with a friend on Wednesday night and hear that, because of the "big game", the season finale of NBC's The Office will be airing later that same night instead of the next as usual.
Panic? Try to rush home? Call your mom and beg her to record it? Hope you can download it off the torrents without getting sued into oblivion?
Nope. You just whip out your trusty iPhone, touch your way through a simple, elegant interface and -- boom! -- EDGE/Wi-Fi sync a new recording schedule back to the DVR-equipped Apple TV in your living room.
When you get home, The Office is recorded and waiting to watch on the big screen. And if you're too tired to finish watching it, you can just shift the content right back to your iPhone (or MacBook Air, or any other iTunes savvy device) and watch it on your way to work the next day.
Sounds like magic, doesn't it? Not according to one of Apple's latest patent filings...
Pick a Show. Any Show.
When asked about expanded functionality for the Apple TV, Master of prestidigitation Steven P. Jobs said the following:
The model will not extend to cable television, he insisted. “We’re not going to go there with the cable cards,” he said, referring to the relatively open cable industry connectors that are gradually allowing companies like TiVo to replace the standard set-top box. “That whole industry, their go-to-market strategy is pretty loopy, and it’s fractured,” he said. “Our model is like DVD.”
"For example, program data for upcoming programs, e.g., for the next month, can be downloaded and stored on the remote control device," Apple said. "Thereafter, a user of the remote control device can search programs that are to be broadcast and determine which programs to record. The recording settings can be programmed onto the remote control device, and then be provided to the video device when a data communication is established between the remote control device and the video device."
(Note: it would seem logical that this functionality could also be integrated directly into the iPhone or iPod touch.)
Classic Jobsian sleight-of-mouth involves knocking an industry or product model repeatedly until Apple unveils some fabulous new bit of tech to simply and elegantly revolutionize it. (The iPhone itself being a prime example).
So here again, Apple's filing also covers various TiVO-style capabilities, turing the "DVD-model" Jobs mentioned into a full-on DVR (digital video recorder) solution with a far greater reach than we've ever seen before.
Hey NBC, Watch Steve Pull The Office Out of His Hat
If you remember, we used The Office as an example in our introduction. iTunes is often credited with helping people discover The Office and making it a hit. Steve Jobs even used it to show off the iPhone's video capabilities during the universe-denting 2007 Macworld Keynote. Yet NBC pulled a hissy fit last year and yanked their content from iTunes. So, as of this writing, there's no legal way to downloaded The Office to your iPhone even if you wanted to.
Sure, if you live in the US you could turn to NBC.com or Hulu, but not with anything approaching the living room or portable experience Apple's iTunes ecosystem provides -- they're desktop browser window only for now. Even the torrents would entail searching, downloading, decompressing and assembling, transcoding -- a lot of work!
And that's the really interesting -- and perhaps leverage providing -- aspect of Apple's new patent.
iTunes exists primarily to feed content to iPods and iPhones. Apple needs that content to help sell their devices. It's easy, and (generally) priced fairly enough that purchases can become a no-brainer. Big Media (the movie studios, TV networks, and music producers), wants to charge more and is withholding content to try and hurt Apple... er... foster alternative channels. (Witness Amazon MP3 being given higher quality DRM-free content by all the major record labels.)
This patent not only allows Apple to sidestep Big Media, but to feed an almost limitless amount of cable TV (and potentially open HD) programming right into iTunes and, by extension, the iPhone.
Can Apple Make Old Media Ideas Disappear?
While the mainstream works on such innovative features as "disabling fast-forward to enhance consumer enjoyment of commercials" and "auto-deleting recorded movies after 24hrs to save your space" (we kid you not!), who knows what Apple's DVR (which is not dependent on ad revenue from the networks or the pay-per-view greed of Big Media) will let users do?
We've already seen some cable companies misuse the broadcast flags (which can be set to "copy always", "copy once", "copy never" in terms of what they allow DVRs to record) to try and sabotage competing set-top solutions like Windows Media Center. Current US Law, however, mandates cable-cards, firewire ports, an unencrypted broadcast network programming.
What if Apple allowed (or threatened to allow) an easy way for users to edit out commercials? They own the power of Final Cut and QuickTime and made the drop-dead easy Ring Tone Maker and iMovie interfaces, after all. Would commercial free TV for your iPhone be any more difficult?
What if Apple applied the same fair (as in FairPlay DRM) policies that lets up to 5 devices share content? Big Media deeply, truly believes we should be paying for each and every use, if not view, of their content (and thank them for it). Letting us record once and easily stream/sync pretty much wherever and whenever we want would be a game changer. Warm up the Apple DVR and feed directly to the iMac in the kitchen and the two iPhone you and your spouse are getting ready to take on vacation!
And what if Apple uses another little patent filing that was discovered a while back to let us combine our various recordings into our own virtual channels, ready to watch where we want, when we want, whether that be on our Apple TV, Mac, iPhone, or Nano? Who would need traditional networks then?
The Greatest Trick of All
While it may seem like magic, it's no mystery what this all means for the future of entertainment. Even the cable companies know it -- the same cable companies who own many of the internet pipes that would feed the new download era. Think it's a coincidence they started testing pay-per-GB tier rates the same week Steve Jobs introduced Apple TV Take 2?
Bottom line, however, patents like these are huge ammunition (or leverage) for Apple and we're not alone in that thinking. Analysts like American Technology Research's Shaw Wu are, as always, already counting the money:
"We believe adding the ability to watch and record live TV could turn this into a billion dollar, if not multi-billion dollar business."