Pushing the Oxcart: Google, Apple, and the Television Set

Sometime around our freshman year of college, the emergence of blogs, social networking, podcasts, and RSS feeds resulted in widespread use of the term “Web 2.0” and a kind of technological fervor erupted. But unlike the Y2k panic, there was far less fear of an apocalyptic scenario like that depicted in the Terminator movies. No, instead we welcomed our robotic overlords, as it only took mere months for the press and media professors to start heralding “The Death of Print Journalism” ™ as we knew it, and with some sense of excitement.

Within the next couple years, the ready availability of YouTube’s expansive library of cat videos and rise of Hulu and Netflix’s streaming services had folks questioning the future of television in the home as well. Soon enough, smart phones and tablet devices resulted in television and movies leaving the home, and carrying us through our daily commute and travels.

But in light of Netflix’s recent failed attempts to curb it’s mail-order DVD service– raising prices and splitting into separate businesses, only to backpedal and remerge the two services into one– maybe it’s time to re-evaluate whether we want to get all of our entertainment streamed to the 3-inch screens of the latest devices. Now that we’ve arrived in the age of 3-D Hi-Def flat-screen home entertainment centers, should we really be getting our television through the internet, when we could instead be engaging in their internet via our television?

Many people have been trying to cast the still unreleased iPhone 5 as Apple-founder Steve Jobs’ final legacy. They might be surprised to learn upon reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs (and articles in WIRED and other tech sources following his death) that the visionary CEO actually devoted much more of his focus during his final months at the company to expanding AppleTV from a cable-box-like device to a fully interactive voice-controlled television unit, with remote access to all the content the iTunes store and apps provide.

But now with Jobs gone, Apple’s competitors may beat them to the punch. Today Google plans to announce the release of their own home entertainment system. Though some of their own marketing language sells it as a “music streaming” device, early speculation (reports from The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, buzz on tech sites like Mashable) has it pegged as an all-encompassing wireless device controlled system with similar features to Microsoft’s Xbox and the AppleTV, but running on Google’s Android operating system and app library.

Update: Further proving our point, Google has now made their announcement, and lo and behold there was no revolutionary interactive set-piece or device… Just a simple update to the YouTube app on their existing (and still unpopular) Google TV service. I’m glad my keyboard has a wrist-cushion, because I’m smacking my head on my desk repeatedly over this “big reveal.”

However, the AppleTV may be approaching on the horizon still, as CNN reported last week that a recent Best Buy survey teased shoppers with the concept of a (hypothetical) $1,499 42-inch HD Apple TV. But even as we approach this sea change in how we watch television and embrace technology, those who will be selling us such devices and services remain short-sighted. After gauging survey participants interest in the proposed Apple television unit, text in the survey asks “Can you imagine playing ‘Angry Birds’ on a big screen in your living room?”

In the mid-nineties, a new technology called WebTV rolled out the gate. We were told that the television would have a new role in the classroom and the home. Soon we’d strap on our VR helmets, grab a box of future-juice, and join with other children across the world in a global cyber-classroom. While educators still promote this concept, the re-purposing of television as a portal into the World Wide Web never really arrived. Instead we went in the other direction. Who needs integrated and interactive home-entertainment when you can have your favorite reality shows streamed into the palm of your hand as you commute to work? Yet, there is still a large portion of the public that would prefer not to throw out our print magazines, daily newspapers, or bulky TV sets in favor of tablet devices and smart phones.

In one of my college classes, a professor of media told the story of how early tractor and farm-equipment manufacturers struggled when they tried to expand their business into India and East Asia’s agricultural markets. Native farmers were hesitant to transition from using traditional ox-carts to this new heavy machinery, so the Western tractor salesmen arrived at the conclusion that they would be better off pitching “new and improved” ox-carts than trying to force so many people to change their very way of life by adapting to an entirely different method of farming. Which brings us back to our main point: The Internet is not bound and tethered to new devices. Perhaps technology companies and media outlets should start devising new ways to bring Internet content to the holdovers of traditional media, like the warm familiar glow of the television set.

Meanwhile, those of us adapted to television on the internet often employ the interactivity and freedom of choice the web provides to seek out traditional forms of media– the very kind that would have nested nicely in the box-sets that formerly served as our primary source of news and entertainment. The one advantage TV on the Internet has over Internet on the TV (at least in comparison to previous attempts like WebTV) is the ability to scan, hold, and juggle various types of entertainment. No longer do we simply watch an episode of a show on Hulu or Netflix… we surf the Internet, load articles, download music, etc while doing so.

But this also is an erratic, interrupted, and stunted experience. We seek to control our entertainment, to pause and stop whenever we want. What gets denatured is the actual piece of entertainment itself. We no longer see shows and movies as objects to absorb and digest, we see them as an endless continuum, a steady stream to flow through, zoom in and zoom out of at whim. And that may be the true legacy of the Web 2.0 era–the spackling of media and information toward traditional routes, with non-traditional apparatuses guiding us along.

But as we move beyond the Web 2.0 era, where the collective YOU (i.e. us) will no longer be named Time Magazine’s person of the year, the focus lies less on mainstream blockbusters than it does more niche, individualized culture. Not only does this apply to music, books, and movies– it applies to the means by which we access them. There is no one grand console to bring these all together, and the best attempts, like the X-Box 360 or iPad 2 and other tablet devices, still have inherent flaws as result of licensing issues, bugs, or the companies’ bottom line. Technology companies treat the consumer the way we’ve treated the media, which is to say isolated and specialized— nothing more than a set of preferences and algorithms.

Sure in 2006, at the apex of YouTube’s rise, the individual reigned supreme. But now we are spectralized. As we learn time and time again, no matter what the innovation is, we will still accept and conform to traditional methods. Which is one of the reasons something like WebTV may have failed, why even with our fancy-dancey new gadgets, television shows like The Wonder Years, Cheers, and Roseanne remain some of the most-watched on Netflix’s streaming service, and why there are still holdovers to television’s warm glowing warming glow.

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