Tech-head Dave Winer is a smart guy, and has been writing interesting things about technology for pushing 20 years now, and he is one of the few in that category that I really respect. But in his recent post about Apple TV, what he thinks it will offer, and why he thinks it will succeed, I think he’s, well, just wrong:
I was watching the Knicks game on Time-Warner cable last night, and remembered why TV sucks, and it had nothing to do with picture quality. The picture quality was absolutely fantastic. If you had time-transported me from ten years ago to my couch last night I would have been blown away. HD is great. Unbelievable how beautiful it is. And the sound quality was great too. I have some very nice Polk Audio tower speakers, and a very powerful receiver driving them, connected optically to the set-top-box. Amazing audio experience. Yet the whole overall experience sucked. Because nowadays while I’m watching TV, I want to look stuff up on the web, communicate about the experience on the net with people I communicate with. And see what they’re saying. And who knows what else in the years to come.
My first thought when I read this was, “Jeez, dude; don’t you have a smart phone?” I mean, why is it tough to watch the Knicks game and tweet his thoughts, look stuff up on the web, and communicate with people via his smartphone? On those rare occasions when my family and I are sitting in the living room watching TV together, we all have our iPhones handy for just that reason. And the beauty is, none of us are interrupting the other’s viewing pleasure by clicking on the remote, pausing the game, rewinding, pulling up a web browser on the screen, or otherwise playing “couch commando” with the TV remote.
And actually, that’s the point I’m getting to here: those times are rare. In the main, the only time I (or anyone else in the family) watch TV is on “Family movie night”, when we all make a conscious effort to do so. The rest of the time, the TV is used for Wii, and the family is watching whatever they want on their various laptops, iPhones, or iPads. We were using the TV so infrequently, in fact, that I canceled our satellite service and returned our DVR! Why pay $75 or $100 a month when Maggie is watching anime on her laptop, Joseph is watching cartoons via Netflix streaming, and I’m downloading my favorite TV shows from iTunes or watching them on Hulu+? It just didn’t make sense.
TV these days is a big object which, while not quite as immobile as in the past, is not comfortable to haul around. For my family, watching TV is like going to a movie or sporting event–something we all do together, or something a particular fan of a particular sport does to catch something live. (Sami is a huge figure skating fan, for example, and during the season doesn’t like to miss any events.) But other than that, why not watch on your iPad or even your iPhone?
But the big point I think Winer missed is that my family does this and gets their TV fix without commercials. After you’ve been downloading movies and TV shows from iTunes or Netflix or wherever without commercials for a while, commercial TV–especially network TV!–is incredibly jarring. It doesn’t take long to get used to a world without “commercial interruption”, and once you’re used to it, going back to the commercial-filled world of cable is spectacularly irritating. I even get impatient with watching things on Hulu+ because of the commercials, and there’s a lot less of them there than on cable.
(There’s also the issue that cable TV requires you to buy a “package”, forcing you to sign up for stuff–The shopping channel! The weather channel! MTV! Fox News! Fox Business Channel! etc.!–that you don’t want and have no interest in. If an Apple TV can solve that issue by offering an a la carte service–has anyone heard whether Apple has launched a transmission satellite?–sign me up!)
I also think Winer underestimates the lack of hassle TV watching on a portable device provides. Yes, Tivo allows you to record programs and watch them whenever you want. They’ve worked hard to make it as easy as possible but it’s still a hassle. After all, you still have to remember to program it, you have to zip over the commercials, you have to work at it. Americans–or at least the Moran family branch–are lazy; if given the choice between something that’s kind of a hassle, and something that’s hardly any hassle, we’ll choose the latter. I can download something from iTunes and watch it any time I want, without having to program a durn thing. Same for streaming stuff from Netflix or Amazon or wherever; no programming or forethought involved, just find the show and zip! there ya go.
So while I think Winer has an interesting point about how dumb TVs are, I don’t think what he’s proposing–web browsing and tweeting from your TV–are what people are really looking for. I’ve outline what I think people are looking for; share us what you think below!