I finally cracked it

October 27, 2011

One of the more revealing passages in the book, Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, is this passage about the rumored Apple TV:

“It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.”

A lot of techy sorts have weighed in how they think Jobs “cracked” it. “It,” they think, means the user interface based on that quote. What we don’t really know, whether because Isaacson didn’t go deep enough or Jobs didn’t reveal, is what “it” really is (Bill Clinton jokes aside). We presume, as many bloggers have, that “it” is the user interface. I don’t think that’s the case.

In 2008, at All Things D’s D8 conference, Jobs was asked about Apple TV and its future. He responds,

“The problem with innovation in the television industry is the go-to-market strategy. The television industry fundamentally has a subsidized business model that gives everybody a set-top box for free or for $10 a month. And that pretty much squashes any opportunity for innovation because nobody’s willing to buy a set-top box. Ask Tivo. Ask ReplayTV. You know, ask Roku. Ask Voodoo. Ask us. Ask Google in a  few months. Sony’s tried as well. Panasonic’s tried. A lot of people have tried. They’ve all failed.”

He goes on to describe the technical landscape of the current television industry…

“So all you can do is add a box on to the TV system…Well you just end up with a table full of remotes, cluster full of boxes, a bunch of different UI’s, and that’s the situation we have today.”

He continues on describing how a complete tear-down of the TV is required, topping it off with a consistent UI and finding a way to get it to the consumer where they are willing to pay for it.

Apple’s history is full of taking an existing product, tearing it apart and redesigning it from scratch. The personal computer, the mp3 player, the phone, the tablet computer. That’s not the problem to crack. Apple can crack any technical problem. They know that and have the track record to back it up.

Jobs most keen insight, and by the far the biggest problem to crack, is getting an Apple-esque end-to-end solution to the market with cable companies in the middle. In other words, how do you get the television industry to be more like the mobile phone industry? Where a single company, like Apple, can control the hardware, software and content, but run across someone else’s pipes?

That is what I think Jobs cracked. It will get interesting from here.


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