One of the last things Steve Jobs was working on, before he died October 5, was television. He told biographer Walter Isaacson about it and a few details are included in the just-published book Steve Jobs.
"I'd like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use," Jobs told Isaacson in one of their 40 interviews for the book. "It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud."
The new iTelevision, or whatever he would've called it, would integrate all the stuff now cluttering our coffee tables and entertainment centers: remotes, DVD player, DVR, cable, phone and laptop.
"It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine," Jobs said. "I finally cracked it." (Before this, the company's TV effort was the Apple TV, a $99 gadget that connects TV viewers to content from ITunes, Netflix and YouTube. Jobs considered it a "hobby" item.)
Could Jobs' revolutionary "smart TV" - oxymoron alert! - be coming soon?
God, I hope so. Television and I go back a long way, back to when commercials said cigarettes were good for your lungs. The first show I saw in color was Bonanza, I pedaled home from school to catch Dark Shadows and I changed channels so often, the plastic knob broke off our Zenith and for the next few years we used pliers to flip from McHale's Navy to Dr. Kildare. As someone who considers TV her best and oldest friend in all the world, I crave a newfangled iTelly that does what I need it to do.
First, I need a better remote. There are 60 buttons on my Time-Warner-issued cable remote. Most don't do anything. There are buttons labeled A, B, C and D that have no purpose (I'd like to use them to grade shows, but we'd need to add an F). The on-off is so un-intuitively placed I had to paint it with bright red nail polish to make it visible.
A voice-controlled remote wouldn't work. Did you see Jack Donaghy try that on 30 Rock? When someone on a TV show said the word "louder," the volume of the set cranked up to 11. When they said "off," the TV went black.
But how about controlling the TV via iPad or iPhone touch pad? Or you could tell Siri, the iPhone voice assistant, what you want to watch. "Siri, find Hoarders," you'd say and in a blink she'd present you with a menu of episodes of the A&E reality series about people who live under crumbling mounds of old mouse-chewed "collectibles."
It would be nice to pick TV shows, movies and music through iTunes, Hulu or Netflix, play them on the smart TV and keep them stored on iCloud. That way, eventually everything you liked on TV would be saved in your TV. Until you die.
On the Jobs-designed tube, I'd hope to have a place to store videos I make and pictures I take. "Siri, show me Padre Island" and boom, I'm on a virtual vacay. It should connect to continuous live-cams around the globe. "Siri, show me Suri," and I'd get live video of little Miss Cruise scowling at paparazzi and not wearing a coat.
I'd like to voice-search other things. "Show me recipes for vol au vent" and, whoosh, up would come choices of cooking shows, YouTube videos and web sites, with an option to send an order for the ingredients to the grocery store of my choice. With a swipe of my bank card over the iPhone, the groceries would be paid for. Then I could send the iBoyfriend over to pick them up. Or we'd connect with local restaurants that serve a decent meat-and-mushroom in puffed pastry, read reviews of same on the TV, make a reservation over the TV-slash-iPhone and either force our lazy arses off the couch to eat out or decide it's too much trouble and share a can of chili during Project Runway.
Televisions equipped with apps - that would be fun and efficient for paying bills, playing games and interacting, not just with TV shows that allow it, but with anything and anyone you connect with through social networks. You and your Facebook friends could watch the U.S. Open together - with your Tweets and FB updates scrolling across the bottom of the large flat screen -- while my FB friends and I Tweet bitchy comments about Bernadette Peters as we group-view Follies on Live from Lincoln Center. (On November 2, Fox's The X Factor starts interactive voting by viewers via Twitter.)
The integration of social networking into television has to happen. A new study from Frank Magid Associates has found that during the day, Americans spend more time on Facebook than in front of the TV. This is true for every age group from 15 to 46, according to the study, but particularly for "Millennials." The only demo still watching television in daylight hours? Mine, the Baby Boomers, though I suspect our attention is divided evenly among Nate Berkus on the TV, Angry Birds on our iPad and short naps.
I want to send and read email on my TV, find map directions and take virtual street-level tours of places I can no longer afford to travel to, but I also want the option of clearing the screen of bugs, pop-ups and other interruptions while I'm watching. It's distracting to be glued to a Law & Order rerun and suddenly have the guy from Psych appear as a little dancing gremlin just as the jury's about to deliver the verdict.
You can do some of this tech-to-tech connection now if you know how to hook your computer into your television. Wanting to watch Stephen Fry's brilliant Planet Word BBC series about the origins of language, viewable on YouTube, I connected my laptop to the flat-screen Sony just fine. But the sound wouldn't work. Feck it, as the Irish would say.
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Some analysts are predicting that Apple will be selling smart TVs in 2012, grabbing more than $2 billion in sales (no price points have been divulged as yet). Half of all TVs sold will have built-in Internet connections. There's also Google TV to compete with. It's supposed to allow full Internet browsing via television and be free, but who's seen it and is it any good?
If television was the last, best re-invention by the visionary Jobs, there's still one area of the medium that lacks any new ideas: programming. Where is the Steve Jobs of broadcast and cable television? Daytime TV's been all but abandoned. (Add another hour of Today Show! They won't know the difference!) In prime time they're still making shows the old-fashioned way, as cheaply as possible and by copying what somebody else once did better. Many sitcoms are still shot just as Lucy and Desi did it in the 1950s, but without the great writing. (30 Rock being an exception.) The slough of despond called reality TV is Kardashian-centric, with a sad dash of housewives, chefs and toddlers in tiaras.
My dream TV is 3-D but Kardashian-free. And it knows what I like and what entertainment I need by sensing my body temperature and scanning my facial expressions as I walk in the room. I think what I really want is TV that watches me.