How the iPad could change how we watch TV
Just over 20 years ago, a book called "The Mac is Not a Typewriter" was published. It aimed to explain the world of typography to users of Apple computers and, in a larger sense, to alert them to the expanded world of possibilities the devices afforded desktop publishers.
I'm probably giving away a million-dollar idea here, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a similar title soon: "The iPad Is Not a Television." Oh, you can watch TV on it — sort of. And I believe the device has the potential to fundamentally change the way we consume television. But it's not a TV.
Here's what it is: a tablet computer with a gorgeous, high-resolution 9.7-inch backlit display. The iPad is operated by touch — there are no input devices except for the 10 at the ends of your hands. It's Wi-Fi enabled, so users can connect to the Internet to browse the Web and access e-mail (a 3G version is on the way). It's an eBook and news reader. It runs applications, both new apps written especially for the device and the thousands that already exist for the iPhone and iPod Touch. Still, when you see it, it just looks like a screen, and its video capabilities, Internet connectivity and stunning (if smallish) display naturally spur thoughts of television-on-the-go.
But if you're one of those viewers who have ditched cable or a satellite provider in favor of watching shows online at Hulu, the iPad will probably disappoint you as a television.
For starters, the device doesn't support Flash, the format in which much online video — including the content on Hulu — is encoded. There is no Hulu app in the iTunes store, and if you surf to Hulu on the iPad and try to watch a video, you'll be instructed to install the uninstallable Flash plug-in. Lack of Flash is a sticking point with some people, while others (yours truly included) consider the lack of endless blinking and intrusive ads worth the inconvenience. Meanwhile, forward-thinking Web sites are moving their video content to the new HTML 5 standard supported by the iPad, and I suspect the rest will follow suit as the user base grows.
Hulu executives have acknowledged that they are seeking ways to charge viewers for content (the site is currently free but generates revenue by embedding advertising into shows) and there is speculation that an iPad app with a monthly subscription fee might be forthcoming. In the meantime, if you want to watch television shows on your iPad, you do have a few options.
Many series have iPad-compatible episodes available in Apple's iTunes Store, often the day after they air on television. Individual episodes are $1.99 for standard definition and $2.99 each for HD. Viewers with a monthly Netflix subscription (starting at $8.99) can download a free app that allows instant streaming to the iPad, although the TV and movie selection is limited and less current than iTunes'.
If you're looking for free TV, ABC has an app that streams the latest episodes of 22 primetime and four daytime shows for free, with embedded advertising. CBS.com offers full episodes of only one show, "Survivor," but clips of other shows are available. NBC has reportedly developed an iPad app, but has not yet released it. No word from Fox.
But let's get back to that fundamental change I mentioned earlier: I believe the iPad's real value to TV fans lies in its ability to enhance, not replace, the television watching experience. I envision living rooms with iPads (or other future tablet devices) lying on couches, ready to be picked up and cradled by TV viewers for this purpose. There are a lot of great, free program guides for the iPad and they can do things your on-screen program guide can't do (yet): TV Guide, Yahoo and Zap2it all have apps that are easily customizable to include your favorite shows and channels. Some of these guides let you call up related videos, photos and other information on programs and cast members with a touch. Some offer the latest television-related news.
Next-level apps such as MLB's "At Bat 2010" for iPad add content for specific programming. "At Bat" offers during-game video highlights, a live game pitch-by-pitch simulation, scores, stats and live audio. Subscribers to MLB.TV can also watch full, regular-season live games with play, pause and rewind capabilities (similar, though less-impressive and navigable features have been available on MLB's iPhone app for some time).
The third and most exciting level of iPad app adds community to the mix. In many of the SXSW Interactive sessions I attended last month, the subject of interactivity reliably came up. Those who create the hardware and, increasingly, software that helps us consume television suggested that TV watching would become a progressively less and less passive (and solitary) experience — that we would soon be interacting with programming, and with our friends while watching, in new ways. None suggested the iPad as a conduit for this interactivity, but I think that's where we're headed.
Consider this: After steady declines, ratings for event television — award shows, sporting events, premieres and finales — are up. This is frequently credited to the prevalence of social media services such as Facebook and Twitter, which allow viewers to read running commentary from their friends and offer their own opinions while watching. I can foresee all kinds of show-specific iPad apps and program guides connected to social media. The show's apps would let you interact directly with other fans and the program guides will tell you what your friends are watching and allow them to recommend programs you might like.
The Discovery Channel's $4.99 "Mythbusters" app is a good example. In addition to including videos and games, it incorporates Facebook and Twitter so that fans can communicate with each other while playing with the app or while just sitting on their sofas with their iPads watching the show on their TVs. It's certainly possible to Twitter with a cell phone or a laptop, but neither is more convenient than a tablet, and the custom show-related application makes the experience easier, more communal and visually richer. It also pares down the Twitterverse to other app users (and won't bother other viewers in the room, the way, say, a Twitter feed crawl across the bottom of your flat-panel TV would).
There will always be TV viewers who just want to sit alone and watch their favorite shows in silence. For those folks, the iPad offers a slightly inconvenient (and expensive) way to do that. For those who'd rather interact, that ability is coming to the device in a big way.