Thin Screens of Various Sizes: Apple’s Long Game

Rumors have abounded in the past few months about Apple prepping to enter into the television set market. It began when Walter Issacson in his bio of Steve Jobs quoted Jobs as saying,

“I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use. It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud. It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.”

Since that quote was released, pundits have had a field day trying to imagine what Jobs had cracked. Speculations have been rampant about what transcendent epiphany Jobs had experienced that would forever change the television set industry. Yet, I think people have been reading into this quote too much, and are expecting way too much out of a future Apple television set. I think to figure out what the Apple television set will be, you simply have to look at the history of Apple since Steve Jobs returned in 1996. Since that time, the blueprint Jobs, and by extension Apple, have been using can be summed up in a phrase, thin screens of various sizes.

When Jobs came back to Apple, he famously began cutting away Apple’s excess baggage, including vastly simplifying the product line to basically have a consumer laptop and consumer desktop, and a professional laptop and professional desktop. Four main devices, although the devices had a few variations revolving around certain specs. Jobs wanted simplicity, and didn’t want consumers to have to figure out a hundred different product numbers for computers that were basically the same. The strategy worked, and Apple continues to have basically four product lines for its Macs: Professional Desktop (Mac Pro), Professional Laptop (Macbook Pro), Consumer Desktop (iMac), and Consumer Laptop (Macbook Air). Jobs always wanted simplicity, and continuously steered Apple in that direction.

However, Apple began to expand out into other areas besides computers, first with the iPod, than the iPhone, and finally the iPad. Yet, while these did complicate the product line, I think they were a natural extension of his overall philosophy, and stepping stones to where he wanted to go. Apple seems to me to be following a linear evolution of its products, with the end game being having all its devices running the same operating system, using the same apps, and sharing the same input methods.

This convergence has already begun to reveal itself, first with how the interfaces on Apple’s products are resembling each other. The iPod Nano’s interface looks like a slimmed down iPhone interface, which in turn is a slimmed down iPad interface, which looks extremely similar to the Launchpad interface in OS X Lion. While the guts underneath all of these interfaces might be different, the look and feel of all of them are mirroring each other. I think its clear Apple wants to converge all its operating systems into one universal Apple OS that will run on all its devices, albeit with some minor device specific tweaks.

The convergence is also showing in the input methods the devices are using. The touch interface is becoming very prevalent, not just in the iPhone and iPad, but in traditional mouse based Macs. While Macs still need a cursor, Apple has introduced a multitude of touch gestures to the Mac, added both a touch sensitive mouse and a trackpad, and consistently enlarged the touch based area of its notebook’s trackpads. The fact Apple reversed the direction in which you scroll on a Mac shows how it wants all its products to have a consistent touch experience. Introducing Siri also gives Apple a universal input method that will presumably be used on all of its devices.

However, while Apple can converge most aspects of a person’s computing experience, they will not be able to create the one device to rule them all. Physical screen size is still the limiting factor. Apple’s current product line includes screen sizes from 1.5 inchs (iPod Nano) through 27 inches (iMac). In between, Apple has products with 3.5, 9.7, 11, 13, 15, 17, and 21.5 inch screens. Given the way things are going, I think Apple will start to cut down all these screen sizes to the select few. Ideally, I think Apple will end up with four main devices based upon four screen sizes: the mobile screen (2-4 inches), the browsing screen (8-13 inches), the professional screen (15-25 inches), and the home theatre screen (30-60 inches). They will pick one or two ideal sizes within those ranges, and that will be the sizes of the devices.

Currently, I think the iPhone fits perfectly into the mobile screen device, and the iPad fits perfectly into the browsing screen device. However, when you get to the professional sized screen, I think Apple has a problem, because they have too many options. You have from an 13 inch Macbook Air to a 27 inch iMac. While everything in between serves certain needs of Mac users, I think Apple will eventually merge everything, and simply create a device that is a large, touch screen, probably around 20 inches. It will be used more on a desk, laid flat or on an slight angle, and while could be portable, would be mostly for people that need a large screen at home or work. I think you’d still be able to plug a physical keyboard into it and prop it upright, but that Apple will want everyone to simply become accustomed to touch keyboards.

Yet, that still leaves Apple in need of a home theatre sized device, which it currently is lacking in any form. That is where the Apple television set naturally comes in. Apple has a presence in all the digital screens of a persons life, except in the living room, which is dominated by the television. If Apple can take that space, they will have a fully integrated eco-system in a person’s house. The key of course would be all these devices, from mobile up through home theatre, will be completely integrated. They will have the same OS, run the same apps, and share all their data through iCloud. Everything would be accessible on every device, and the OS would simply adjust the look and feel to whatever screen the data is currently running on. This is exactly what Jobs says in the quote by Isaacson, an integrated television that seamlessly syncs with all your devices and iCloud. One doesn’t have to read any more into that quote than what it says out right. I don’t think the television set will be revolutionary, but merely an extension of this strategy Apple has been slowly implementing for the past decade.

The end game of this strategy would leave Apple with four main devices, covering all areas of a person’s technological life. The devices would, for most practical purposes, be the same, with the main differentiating feature being the screen size. A mobile device, a browsing device, a professional device, and a home theatre device. Four thin screens of various sizes. Apple is already dominating the market in two screen sizes (iPhone and iPad), which will give them tremendous leverage to begin to dominate the last two sizes into the future. I don’t think Apple needs its television set to be dominant immediately, but merely needs to have the option for a consumer to buy an Apple television available. Soon, a person who owns other Apple devices and is looking to buy a new television set will naturally be very likely to purchase the Apple one. Apple’s goal is to dominate all of these areas, and this strategy sets them up perfectly to do just that.

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