Apple, Television, Video

A Modest Proposal

The 21st Century Video Platform Apple Should Build

With Tim Cook’s appearance at D11 last week, and WWDC just days away, feverish talk about an Apple-made TV, or something of the sort, has spiked once again.

In the wildest dreams of us video-loving geeks, this Apple TV will have all of the programming and it’ll do everything. A beautiful way to navigate and control your cable or satellite TV service. On demand over-the-top services like Hulu and Netflix. Seamless access to the bounty of the Internet. A DVR. All with a beautiful screen, inventive remote, interoperability with the iPad and iPhone. Apple reinvents the TV just like they reinvented the music business and mobile. Glory!

Apple is without doubt fully capable of making the hardware. But as smart commentators like @monkbent have pointed out, the Apple TV of our dreams is a bit like the Grand Unified Theory and the unicorn. Forces beyond Apple’s control make it unlikely that this device will come to pass.

This is not the music business or the mobile business.

So what to do? Here’s my advice to you, Apple:

Forget the past, build the future.

For your Apple TV device, do just enough with your hardware and software to make the existing cable & satellite experience a little bit better. But don’t get too caught up on the world as we know it. Don’t build anything that requires the permission of the cable & satellite guys, or the cable networks.

Instead, put most of your focus on building a video delivery system for 21st century, and devices made to work seamlessly with that delivery system. The iPad is one of those, and an important one. But you need to help people build new over-the-top video services that reach the TV, too.

So create, as Apple can, the ideal Internet video platform for the 21st century. Where all programming can be delivered over ip to multiple devices — iPads, iPhones, Macbooks and the Apple TV— via IP instead of cable.

What would such a platform look like? Here are the core principles of any platform Apple should set out to build.

1. The Internet is Distributed. Embrace that.

YouTube — with its centralized hosting of content — is an anomaly. Tensions produced by that centralized control are becoming more clear.

So let people host where they want. Video standards and fast broadband enable this. Just add some quality of service controls and services on the client to ensure a good experience with a distributed architecture. And add some special sauce for live streams (but don’t get hung up on live — it’s doesn’t need to be at the heart of our 21st century system).

This isn’t radical; you already do it on the current Apple TV. And of course you already support this on the iPad and iPhone. Just do more of it, and make it better still.

2. Build innovative tools for a beautiful & consistent experience 

Traditional linear TV channels are an elaborate fiction. They appear to be live, but are (mostly) full of on-demand programming played at specific dates and times.

What’s a channel in this brave new world with these new devices? How does a it work and what’s it look like? How are they traversed, navigated, consumed?

Invent that.

And then give creators and publishers the tools they need to make their channels rich, fluid and fun-to-watch.

But put guardrails in place that ensure tastefulness and a consistent experience for viewers, so that watching and navigating through and among videos in a channel is simple, wonderful, better than TV.

3. Don’t outsource discovery

Learn the right lessons from the AppStore. When you (Apple) enable a platform on the Internet,you can expect millions of flowers to bloom. Don’t plan for 500 channels — plan for 5 million. Provide smart, simple, intelligent ways for people find and watch programming they know and love. And introduce them to channels they might like.

4. Allow a media ecosystem to bloom

Build beautiful, user-friendly advertising & pay systems that let creative people and media companies make a living. You’ve got a head-start with iTunes, but go further. Bundles are a powerful way to give benefits to consumers and scale to media-makers. Enable those, but think Humble Bundle, not cable bundle.

Provide tools that allow for better and more beautiful video advertising.

Oh, and don’t be too greedy. YouTube has to charge 45% rents from their partners. Advertising, after all, is their only business. You, Apple, make a LOT of money on devices. Use that to your advantage, and offer exceedingly fair terms. Remember: “Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered.”

5. Build an intelligent interest graph on your platform

This isn’t silly; it’s essential in a world where the supply of programming is practically infinite yet competes for our very finite free time.

In this new world we live in, sharing is distribution. When someone shares a link on Twitter, by guiding us to things that matter, by focusing our attention — that is distribution for the site or service behind that link. You’ll want a native, video-centric graph for your platfom that facilitates sharing and distribution. It’s an essential part of the new ecosystem you want to build.

Hello, future.

Now, if Apple builds this will HBO and ESPN suddenly move to the new Apple platform? Of course not. Don’t sweat that.There are plenty of other makers of media and creators who will embrace what you’ve built.

Let this new video distribution platform evolve in parallel to the legacy cable & satellite platforms. You’ve sold 13 million Apple TV boxes already doing so much less than what I’ve described above. Build something wonderful, offer them a taste of the future, and give creative people ways to make money and I suspect you’ll see an explosion of interest.

Plus, your video platform will run not just on whatever AppleTV device you make, but should also work seamlessly on on iPads, iPhones, and Macbooks. You’ll be able to reach people anywhere throughout the day, no matter where they are.

Last, and most crucially, it’ll be a global platform. Unlike the cable and satellite operators, you’ll run a platform without geographical bounds, enormous in scale. That will be a powerful asset for you, and an incredible draw for the best creative minds and media.

Exploding the screen for real this time.

Build that and you’ll have dented the universe again.


The Moat Around Apple’s Castle?

Lots of folks find it incomprehensible that Apple’s stock is tanking. Here’s a tweet from earlier today that’s representative of the sentiment I’ve seen:

But the problem with all this is that this isn’t a problem of investor math; it’s a problem of investor psychology.

In pure math terms as many people have pointed out, Apple stock ought to be a no-brainer buy for value investors. But value investors (like Warren Buffett most famously) like to buy and hold for the long term; and as Buffett himself has said in his annual letters many times, he looks for “economic castles protected by unbreachable ‘moats.”

I think the problem with Apple’s stock right now is that few investors are convinced Apple has a sufficient moat.

Does Apple in fact have a “moat”? If so, what is it?

If you asked someone senior at Apple I think they’d say this: their advantage is that they create and control “the whole widget” as Steve Jobs was fond of saying. That the marriage of world-class industrial design, proprietary operating systems (MacOS and iOS, and hardware gives them advantages over all other digital device makers. That is their moat – that they’ll be able to invent dazzling new digital devices we love and need for years to come.

Until recently, the industry and market effectively and essentially agreed with Jobs and that point of view. But the last six months — with the latest versions of Android hitting the market and devices like the Nexus 7 and Nexus 4, and the Samsung Galaxy III — have shaken people’s faith. They’re just good enough, and selling in big enough volumes, to make one question whether the advantages of vertical integration are less robust than we previously thought.

And, Google’s strategy has come into focus a bit more, and it looks like the winning hand played by another Apple foe twenty years ago. Google has essentially bet that if they bundle and control core essential services on mobile (search, maps, email, YouTube, Chrome) that Android and the devices that run it need to be “just good enough” for people to convert.

In other words, if the core services you use on your phone or tablet (browser, email, maps, video, and search) are just as good on Android as iOS (because Google provides them on both) and if enough third-party app makers provide “good enough” apps on Android, large numbers of people will choose or move to Android devices if they’re cheaper and not horribly inferior. And that’s essentially where we’re at now.

That’s not to say Apple is doomed. Rather, to believe they have a durable moat you have to convince yourself they can continue to marry design, hardware and software in a way that draws many of us to their devices — because they’re simpler, easier to use, work better, and look better. That’s not a crazy or outlandish thought.

But here’s the rub. It could be argued they went backwards in some fundamental ways on the “simpler and easier to use” parts of that formulation during 2012. And that’s because ease-of-use is increasingly about seamless integration with services that live in the cloud — a real weakness of Apple’s, and a strength of Google’s (it could be argued, correctly, that this is fundamentally what Google does).

Loathed is iTunes Match. The removal of Google Maps was a disaster. Photo Stream feels rough. Siri is often wrong or useless. iCloud still feels inchoate.

For me, this is the essential question about Apple and its future. Can it ensure that the core services offered on its devices are every bit as good, and perhaps better, than those offered on Android? Either by building great cloud services at Apple; by buying up great cloud-based companies and engineering teams; by providing a world-class development platform that attracts developers to solve these problems; or some combination of the above.

Apple, Digital Media, Internet

Where A Photo Is Worth 10 Words

Content was never king. Contact was always king.Douglas Rushkoff (h/t @aweissman)

This line from Rushkoff has been my mantra the past few months. It’s a simple but sublime observation about the Internet, and it came to mind again today while reading about Instagram.

In case you missed it: some people are hopping mad about Instagram because it “debases photography.”

Where these critics go wrong is they think that Instagram is about photography and photo-sharing.

I’ve been on Instagram for a while, from when it launched, but it wasn’t until I saw how my 13-year-old daughter and her friends use it that I truly understood it. For them, it’s a replacement for Facebook. They share photos, but those are just points of entry, a way to a conversation. They are status updates, expressed visually.

They tart up their photos and comments using an array of 3rd party apps like Versagram, PicFrame, Emoji. It’s a ping to let your friends know you exist, and what your doing; and you hope for a “like” (a ping back) to let you know you’re not alone on the network.

Of course, this is what we’ve all been doing with Instagram. We’ve just been under the illusion we were sharing photos. Seeing the behavior of these 13-year-olds made that clear to me.

We’re not using Instagram to make art. Or to hone our craft as photographers. It ain’t Flickr.

We’re just trying to connect with our friends, to start a conversation. Instagram is really a communications platform disguised as a photo app.

This is true for almost all successful social media services. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr — they work because they help us to communicate. What we think of as acts of self-expression are really just opening lines.

Which brings me to video, and to “social video apps.” The real way to gauge these apps, to judge them, is to ask whether they help you craft a great opening line; a way to start a conversation.

The photos you uploaded to Facebook from your birthday, the picture of the sunset with a high contrast filter you made with Instagram, that song you soundtracked, the precious cat-cuddling-with-warthog video from  YouTube you tweeted — they all might be great opening lines.

But sharing that blurry, grainy, shaky video you took with your phone where you can’t really make out what’s happening? Well, the jury is out on that. And so we have the founder of Socialcam admitting (after the sale of his app to Autodesk) “that the comparison to Instagram was a fallacy from the beginning.” The two apps launched today (Ptch and Vyclone) are exciting because it’s possible to imagine a way to craft a video using your phone that might be compelling.

But here’s the other thing — it helps if it’s easy and fast to craft that opening line. Instagram works because we can take and make a fun cool photo in a few seconds. Same with sharing a link to an article, or a song, or a video. Making a video takes so much more time and effort.

To beat this metaphor into submission, it’s hard to craft an opening line with a video you’ve taken. It’s much easier to do with a video you’ve found and loved.  Most of us are good at judging if a video is funny, interesting, beautiful, worth sharing. Few of us are good at making a video worth sharing.

Why did YouTube succeed on the web?  Because they gave us a place where we could always find something great that we could share; and they allowed us to take those videos and talk about them wherever we liked; our blogs, our Myspace pages, and more recently on Facebook and Twitter.

In this new world, where we spend more of our time on mobile and tablet devices and where apps reign supreme, we need something different. My hunch is that the social video apps that succeed will be the ones that give us those great opening lines; that make it easy for us to find videos that are cool, amusing, incredible with just a few taps or swipes.

But Instagram shows us, if nothing else, those apps will need to do one more thing; provide us a place to talk with our friends about the videos we find.

Instagram could have been a photo app, and outsourced the conversation to our existing social networks. They won in the photo space because they figured out that we all really wanted to connect and talk, and they gave us a fun and new way to do that.


Apple, Television, Video

The Future of Television Is in Your Hands

Everywhere you turn, there is much talk about the disruption of the television itself and resulting future of the television business.*

Some of this talk is about the rumored AppleTV; some of it’s about other connected television devices (like the XBox service launching this week); and some is about how platforms like YouTube are changing the economics of production and distribution.

But the thing that is currently, actually starting to disrupt television arrived 20 months ago. As soon as we got our hands on the iPad in April 2010, it was clear that it was the future of entertainment.

The tablet is doing for video what the iPod did for music, giving us more control than any other device over what we watch, and where and when we watch it.

There are, of course, other digital devices that allow us to watch video, lots of them. Various connected TV devices (Boxee, Roku, AppleTV, the XBox and more) as well as computers and laptops all give us a wide range of choice between the Traditional (the film and television programming we get on Hulu, Netflix, iTunes Store, etc) and the New (the huge tsunami of video programming of all shapes and sizes available on the Internet).

But the iPad does the best job of any device to date providing seamless, easy access to the full breadth of what’s available, from the Traditional via apps like Hulu, Netflix, or HBO Go and the New via apps like ours.

And unlike laptops and connected TV devices, the tablet frees us up to watch video wherever and whenever we want. This is more than just a bullet point on a slide, or check-box on a marketing matrix — it’s enabling a whole new psychological and sociological framework for how we watch, just as the iPod changed how we listen to music.

Ask iPad users about when and where they watch videos on their tablet and you’ll start to see interesting trends. It’s a quieter, more intimate device than a laptop or TV — it’s at home in your bed, on the couch, a big stuffed chair, or on the train or plane. I talked to one cable network president this summer, and he waxed on about how he and his wife just used the iPad to watch Netflix and Hulu in bed on their iPad at night (and used the TV less as a result).

No surprise, really. In so many ways, watching video on the iPad is just better. Better than TV, even.

Unlike the laptop, we relax a bit more when we use the tablet; we lean back, not forward. No  keyboard beckons us to do something. So we watch, read, browse, play. Video, on a nice screen at arms length, looks great — crisp, clear, personal.

But unlike the TV, we’re not just passive consumers when we use the tablet. The tap of a finger summons a keyboard, or enables us to share or like something, or to tell our friends about it. So we interact, but in just the right amounts mostly.

Anecdotes from families with both kids and iPads in the house are particularly telling. We have a 15-year-old and 13-year-old in our house, and five laptops, one iMac, and two iPads among us. Yes, we’re at one extreme (a bi-product of my work, mainly). Most video-watching in our house now takes place on the laptops and iPads. The TV is rarely on, or used — this is especially true for our kids, who do all their watching now on smaller, more portable screens.

This is particularly striking given we have two Apple TVs, connected to two televisions. The only time these get used are when we all want to watch the same movie. I think this pattern will increasingly be true for most homes as they acquire a tablet or two.

I had thought that Airplay and the AppleTV might have a bigger impact on our habits, that we might use the iPad more as a remote control. That happens, but infrequently. We use Airplay in our house far more often for music, and much less often for video. But still, even with music, using Airplay to reach the stereo is an occasional thing. The iPod, and now the iPhone, is what I use to listen to music most of the time.

So I suspect it will be with video and the iPad and Airplay connecting to the TV. A nice thing to have on occasion, but a sideshow mostly. Watching on the iPad is so much better, so much of the time.

If it were just the anecdotes, you’d be right to treat this all with skepticism. But there is data, too.

With our iPad app, and others, usage peaks during weekends and evenings — just when people typically turn on their TVs. People use their iPads during prime time. This is a big deal —  the web has historically had a tough time breaking into that time slot.

Session lengths with our app are an order of magnitude longer than your average web visit, and are more akin to the time we might spend watching television. Another huge change.

So this new type of device is already changing our habits. It’s liberated video, and us, allowing us to watch what we want, when we want, where we want. That’s a big, fundamental, and disruptive change.

Maybe the AppleTV that is supposedly coming will be so great, so magical, so awesome that I’ll feel compelled to revise this in just a few months. It’s happened before; technology surprises sometimes. I’ll undoubtedly buy one. But unless I can put that TV under my arm, and take it onto the couch in the other room, I kinda doubt it will be as big as folks expect.

*Mark Suster wrote up this nice post recapping a talk he gave on the Future of Television; he argues that cheap(er) production and distribution of video (primarily through YouTube) is now poised to disrupt the television business. Fred Wilson has been blogging about handheld devices as remote controls (something we’ve thought a lot about with Showyou) and how that is changing our consumption patterns.  And of course people have gone crazy trying to decipher Steve Jobs’ remark about the rumored AppleTV (“I finally cracked it”) and what it portends.

Apple, Digital Media, Internet, Television, Video

A New Way to Watch

Today our startup launched a new app for the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch — Showyou. I’ve worked in digital media for almost 20 years now — shocking, that — and of the many products I’ve worked on, I can say without hesitation this is the one I’m the most excited to have helped create.

I love our new Showyou app most of all because it’s a joy to use. But I’m also excited about Showyou because it and other similar apps that are sure to follow have the potential to change how we watch TV — and what we watch.

We spend more time watching television than consuming any other form of media. Kids 8-18 years old watch television nearly 4 and a half hours a day — far more than they spend with any other kind of media.

And yet television has remained the most shackled platform, with the least range of choice.  With books, music, magazines and more recently the internet we’ve become accustomed to an abundance of choice. The television, on the other hand, has been locked down for most of the last 50 years, limited (for most people) to a set of channels chosen and delivered by their cable companies, and with programming on those channels determined by a small, select group. Maybe 1000 people, total, determine what most of us watch — or can watch. They’ve offered up some great stuff, to be sure — The Wire, Mad Men, The Daily Show and Colbert Report. But we’ve also gotten a lot of this.  And this. And this.

Despite the growing power of the Internet and social media, television has continued to reign supreme from 8-11PM in most homes. But cracks are starting to show. Data just released this week from the makers of the ReadItLater app shows that the heaviest usage of the iPad during the prime time hours. And we know that streaming from Netflix now accounts for a huge percentage of bandwidth consumed in the evenings.

And now, with Apple TV and  Airplay, your iPad or iPhone or iPod Touch just turned into a new remote control for your TV. New apps like Showyou have the potential to change where we get programming for our televisions, and indeed what we watch.  Now available: tens of millions of hours of programming from the internet, chosen by our friends, or people we follow on social networks like Twitter or Vodpod who have tastes or interests similar to ours. Other platforms from other companies  — Android, Windows, and more — will surely give us more options and more choice still over time.

History shows us what happens when these kinds of disruptions occur. In 1985, when cable TV was still in its infancy, the viewers watched broadcast networks 45% of the time. By 2009, that had dropped to 25%, and basic cable has risen 10-fold, from  a 3.5% share to a 36% share.

Even though online video has had explosive growth the past five years, it accounts for just a small fraction of the time we spending watching television or video. Just like cable in 1984. There is a now an opportunity for entrepreneurs to change all that.

And so a pitched battle is going to be waged for how we get programming for our televisions — and that will be a good thing for consumers.

Apple, Digital Media, Startups

The Lost Magnificent Ambersons Footage: An Allegory

“It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want.”    — Steve Jobs, when asked if consumer research was done for the iPad (NYTimes)

The tale of The Magnificent Ambersons is well known among hard core movie fans. It was the first movie directed by Orson Welles after his ground-breaking Citizen Kane, and Welles and others thought it was an even better picture than Kane. But Welles went off to Brazil to make another movie just as Magnificent Ambersons was going into final edits, and left the film in the hands of the studio (RKO) and his associates. Who proceeded to test a version of the film in front of a group of teenagers in Pomona, California who had come to see a wartime musical, The Fleet’s In.

Predictably, the kids savaged the film, and in Welles’ absence RKO and some of Welles’ colleagues proceeded to butcher the picture, cutting it down from a run time of 132 minutes to 88 minutes.  No copies of the original version of The Magnificent Ambersons are known to have survived. (Imagine for a second 44 minutes being hacked from Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia, or Schindler’s List). This whole saga is recounted in more depth, and wonderfully, here.

The tragedy of the Magnificent Ambersons illustrates perfectly what happens when you’re making something that is designed to engage one’s emotions and you leave the really important decisions to a focus group, or A/B testing, or some similar data-driven process.  For when you’re trying to make something that produces joy, or that is “fun,” or that is playful, some art and some craft and a point a view is required. Things that are built to engage one’s emotions — movies, music, art, even devices like the iPad — can’t be systematically produced, or manufactured, or tested.

I’ve felt this strongly as we’ve made Showyou (a new app we launch in about 12 hours) the past few months. We wanted to make something that was, first and foremost, fun to use. That made you smile with delight. That was beautiful to look at.  We had (and continue to have) a point of view about how we ought to do that. We tested it with about 50 people over the past month, got wonderful feedback from them, and iterated intensively to make the app more usable as a result.

But some feedback — while rational, defensible, perfectly justifiable — we ignored. Intentionally. Because acting on it would have involved taking out or substantially altering the very elements that, in our view, make Showyou fun to use.

It may be that tomorrow we’ll be proven wrong. And indeed, there’s definitely the risk of leaving too much in — or failing to recognize when you’ve just got a bad idea to start with (Ishtar?!).

But as I’ve gotten older, and worked on more products, I’ve come very much to the view that you have to have a point of view. And be willing to stick to it. You might be wrong. Or you might make something great. With Showyou, we are excited about what we’ve built, and eager to make it better still.

For in our world, unlike the movies, you’re never done and you always keep working towards perfection.

Apple, Digital Media, Internet, Video

Apple’s Big iPad Mistake

When Apple launched the initial iPod in 2001, they made two critical strategic decisions:

  • They focused on providing really great PC support on iTunes, and made the iPod a great device for PCs and Macs (remember, the Mac was not yet ascendant as a laptop); and
  • They supported MP3s

People bought (and loved) the iPod because it allowed them to take music they already had (through Napster, or that they’d ripped). The iPod became a dominant force in music by embracing and supporting an existing landscape (the PC, MP3), not by trying to circumvent that landscape (or trying to create an alternate reality right off-the-bat). People forget all this now, but the iTunes Store didn’t arrive until 18 months later; and only the huge wave of initial support for the iPod assured it would be a success. Apple changed the music industry paradigm only after they got tons of people to buy iPods, and they got people to buy iPods by making a great device that worked with MP3s they had on their PCs.

Turn to today’s launch. This was Steve Jobs’ lede today at the iPad unveiling:

You can browse the Web with it. It’s the best browsing experience you’ve ever had.

Indeed, the Internet should be without doubt the killer app (initially) for the iPad.  What a joy to sit on a couch, or bed, or plane, or train with an iPad, using natural touch gestures to navigate and browse the web. I would buy this thing in a heartbeat if I could do that — everything else (iBooks, movies and video, games) would be gravy.

So what gives? Well, turns out you can’t truly browse the web with the iPad.

By ignoring Flash, Apple has basically made most of the web broken, as so clearly illustrated by the screenshot of their demo of the front page of the NY Times! It’s not just 10,000s sites which provide their videos in Flash (Hulu, yes, but also CNN, MSNBC, MTV, Comedy Central, BBC, and many, many more), but it’s the millions of flash widgets and other interactive elements on the page.  To get a sense, try this experiment — remove Flash from your computer, and start browsing around. If your web experience is unimpaired, maybe you’ll like the iPad. But I think most people will think: “Who broke the damn Internet?”

The iPad did, that’s who.

Now, I’ve seen some arguments today that this misses the point — that Apple isn’t just satisfied with replicating your standard web video experience, that they want to transform the entire video business.  Ryan Lawler at NewTeeVee argues:

The iPad will cause ripples in multiple industries — including news, book publishing and gaming — but at the end of the day, I’m betting that what the iPad will be used for more than anything is watching video. Like the iPod, it’s only a matter of time before the iPad becomes the defining product with which to consume that type of media.

Could be. But they have to sell a ton of iPads first. And, by not embracing the existing landscape — the tens of thousands of video sites that provide hundreds of millions of videos encoded in Flash — they’ve cut off a natural, intial reason to buy and to use the device (and yes, I know all about HTML 5 video, and no the iPad is not going to cause a stampede to that overnight). If I have to choose between a lightweight, fully functional wireless enabled laptop that works well on every web site and that allows me to watch videos from Hulu and Netflix and a gazillion other places, and an iPad that doesn’t support Flash or any site that  uses Flash and only lets me watch videos from iTune and YouTube, which am I gonna use?

Simple. I’ll stick with my Macbook for now, thanks.