Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Does the Future of TV Have Two Screens?

In Like Apple, TV Explores Must-Have Applications, The New York Times tell us:

DirecTV and the FiOS service from Verizon Communications have recently announced app stores modeled directly on Apple’s App Store. Just a few applications have shown up so far, but already these few — Bible verses, Facebook updates and fantasy sports team updates — suggest that people may not be content to sit back while watching TV but rather want to lean forward and interact and customize their TVs.

While there may be an audience segment that values FaceBook on TV, I suspect that most people want something similar but different: They want to use FaceBook (or Bible verses or fantasy sports updates) in the same room as the TV. If so, there’s a better way than putting apps on the TV. Put them on the remote control instead.

No, not today’s remote control with all the buttons. That device will soon be the equivalent of a pre-iPhone cell phone. Your future remote control will have a high-resolution touchscreen rather than buttons. It will have WiFi. You will get the TV program guide on the remote, not on the TV. You will make your choices by touching the remote’s screen, and the TV will obey. No more reading text across the room. No more fiddling with arrow keys to plod around the distant screen.

Along with controlling the TV, Remote Control 2.0 will specialize in text-oriented apps—like FaceBook, Bible verses, fantasy sports updates, The New York Times, and so on. That way, the TV can keep doing its thing, displaying big and fast-moving images from across the room, since that’s what it is good at. This combination of far screen and near screen will make a nice division of labor. Media multitaskers rejoice!

Remote Control 2.0 will also enable a new type of app that coordinates with the TV’s content. For example, a baseball game is on the TV screen. The remote has extra statistics, alternate angles, Twitter-style fan commentary, e-commerce if you must have that throwback jersey the players are wearing, and new forms of near-screen/far-screen ads. Different people in the room may have their own remotes, displaying distinct near-screen experiences for the same far-screen program.

Of course, it will take time for apps to realize the possibilities of coordinated, two-screen TV. Normally, this might raise the specter of a chicken-and-egg problem: no apps, no second-screen remotes sold; no second-screen remotes sold, no reason to build apps. But the beauty of the second-screen remote is that it can evolve out of devices that are successful for reasons beyond being remote controls, such as the iPhone, iPod Touch, and their future variants. Today’s iPhone or iPod Touch hardware is already close to enabling Remote 2.0 functionality; if you have Apple TV, the functionality is already there in a limited way. The bigger challenge is enabling everything else necessary for media and apps to coordinate across two screens, but the world has come a long way since Intercast.

So, if you hear the assertion that people want to lean forward and interact more with their TVs, it is worth asking why. If the answer is, “To use apps like those in the App Store,” consider instead a future where people interact less with the TV and more with the remote. You will know that future is happening when people wonder, “When is a remote not a remote?”

[Update, 9/30/2009: I was not aware of it at the time, but the day I posted this, Boy Genius Report passed along a rumor, complete with picture, that Apple has prototyped a touchscreen remote control. If the picture is to be believed, it’s a touch version of the traditional remote-control form factor (long and thin). That’s a step in the right direction. See also MG Siegler’s Touching: All Rumors Point To The End Of Keys/Buttons on TechCrunch.]

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