The revolution will have a monthly subscription

Introducing the first iteration of the Apple TV with an app store, Tim Cook (in)famously declared, “We believe the future of TV is apps.” The Apple TV stands out from its competitors for only two things: the App Store, and a much more powerful CPU than its competitors. So it’s safe to say that Apple genuinely does believe this is the future of TV.

It’s also safe to say, though, that it doesn’t appear to be panning out. Pretty much nobody buys Apple TVs for much other than what other streaming boxes do.1 We’re watching Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and Amazon Prime. (Well, we will be watching Prime. Later. Theoretically.)

What we want from TV is—sorry for the buzzword—content. In practice, it doesn’t matter how we get Game of Thrones or Star Trek: Discovery as long as we can get it easily on demand. Apps are arguably less help than hindrance. Imagine having a storefront that had all the shows, and we just paid per episode or per season for permanent access to our favorite shows–we could stream them or download them. Wouldn’t that be much better?

Ha ha! I’m pulling a fast one on you. Sorry. We had that from Apple and Amazon by the mid-2000s. Have you ever bought a TV show on iTunes? No? Yes, but only because it wasn’t available on Netflix? Once we got “all you can eat” streaming for $10–12 a month, we all said fuck this à la carte thing. We’ll just wait for all the networks and all the studios to put all the things on Netflix. Everybody wins!

But studios don’t make as much selling to Netflix as they used to in old syndication deals. They make a lot less. So what are they going to do? Start their own streaming service. Yay! You know Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime, and HBO Go/Now. Maybe you know Walmart’s me-too Vudu service. And you’ve recently heard Trek nerds bitch about CBS All Access. But there’s also Crunchyroll, Feeln, Acorn TV, Filmstruck, BritBox, Shudder, Screambox, Youtube Red, and others that I’m certainly forgetting—and that’s without counting the “cable replacement” services like Sling Orange, PlayStation Vue and Hulu Live. Disney is gearing up for their service, with plans to pull their stuff off other streaming services. And there’s whatever the hell Apple is doing.2

“But nobody’s going to subscribe to all those streaming services!” Not if you’re already paying $100+ a month for cable before you add any streaming services, no. But imagine a world (it’s easy if you try) in which you’re only paying, say, $50 a month for network access with no bundled television. All your shows now come from streaming services. So the chances are you’re going to end up subscribing to more than just Netflix and one other.

If you look at cord cutting as a money-saving move, this sounds depressing: it’s painting a picture of a future where the money you save by going data-only gets eaten up by streaming services. Well, true. But now you’re paying for everything on demand, in most cases commercial-free. Honestly, that’s still a win.

“Okay, but even if you get me to pay for five or six services, you listed eighteen services and claimed you were probably forgetting some. That is not gonna happen.” No, it isn’t. Most of those services aren’t going to survive long-term. They’re going to merge with other services or just quietly vanish. (SeeSo, we hardly knew yeeso.) But streaming video will likely never consolidate to a point where you can get every show you want by ponying up for one or two big names.

Is this just about money? Is it just greed that stops networks and studios from making it easier on all us consumers by just putting everything on Netflix or Hulu? Sort of. But it’s also about control.

Giant aggregators kind of reverse the way we think of monopolies working: instead of giant companies gaining control over a market and gouging consumers at retail, they lower retail prices and deliver the real pain to the suppliers. Walmart is the original giant aggregator, and it’s not hard to find stories of companies driven to bankruptcy by “success” selling through them. Twenty-First Century Walmart, Amazon, is remarkably cavalier about counterfeiters selling physical goods on their site. And you don’t have to be on the take from Penguin Random House to wonder whether it’s particularly healthy for self-publishers to rely on Amazon for three-quarters or more of their sales. If they decide they’d rather only give “indies” a 50% cut of the cover price instead of 70%, well, what are you gonna do about it? Pray they don’t alter the deal any further.3

The music industry still blames Apple’s iTunes ecosystem for destroying the once-lucrative CD market. So it’s not surprising that studios have decided that if on-demand streaming was truly going to be the future of television, they did not, in fact, want to chill with Netflix. Think about streaming music: artists say that unless they’re Taylor Swift, they’re making bupkis from Spotify, yet Spotify pays out so much for music that they’re still not profitable. These sound mutually exclusive, but they’re not: Spotify and friends should have charged $15 or $20 a month for unlimited music streaming, not $10.

Does that mean that Netflix should be charging us more than $9.99 $10.99? If they wanted to be the video version of Spotify, yes. But they don’t: they want to be a network. Amazon wants to be a network. Hulu wants to be a network. Apple (probably) wants to be a network. CBS wants to remain a network.

And at the end of the day, that’s what this boils down to: video streaming services aren’t the new airwaves, they’re the new networks. And since we’ve pretty much all collectively decided we can’t stand commercial breaks—how we “paid” for most network programming for sixty-odd years—we’re going to end up paying those networks directly.

So the future of TV is not apps—the future of TV is, just like the past of TV, networks. The key shift is a move from an advertising-supported model to consumers paying the networks directly.4

But will this future last as long as what it’s replacing? The network-and-affiliate broadcast model has been with us for nearly a century, predating television itself. That’s a lot harder to say. The model definitely needs tweaks—streaming services need to stop treating their metadata as proprietary secret sauce and let companies building streaming appliances build comprehensive cross-service program guides, for a start. But it seems to me like this future, even if it’s not precisely the one we wanted, has legs.

It’s much less clear to me whether this model will work well for software, as more and more programs take cues from Adobe and Microsoft and move toward subscription models. That, however, is another post.

  1. The Apple TV is arguably most of the way to being a solid “casual” game console, but it’s become clear that Apple has no idea how to make it attractive to either developers or consumers in that space. 
  2. I suspect Jason Snell is correct: Apple will take an “HBO approach…offering a dozen original series and a curated collection of films and classic TV shows.” 
  3. This is what much of Amazon’s stock price was historically based on: investors bet they would do exactly what Walmart did. That this hasn’t come to pass may well be due to Amazon Web Services becoming the company’s biggest revenue driver. 
  4. Advertising-supported services that are free to watch will stick around, but there’s a strong antipathy toward services with monthly bills and ads. I doubt that “blended” model will be with us long-term. 

Form over Frolic: Jony Ive’s quest for boring perfection

Right now I’m sitting in front of a 27″ iMac. It’s the best computer I’ve ever owned, with a 5K display, high color gamut, 24 gigs of RAM and 512 gigs of SSD storage. It’s beautiful and minimalist, just like every iMac they’ve released since they switched to aluminum in 2007.

It’s also the least modifiable desktop computer I’ve ever owned. This trend also goes back to that aluminum iMac, in which—like today’s—only the RAM is user-upgradeable. (Since 2012, even that’s no longer true of the smaller 21″ iMac.) It’s hard not to ask: why is thinness the priority in all of Apple’s designs?

You know the answer: Jony Ive. It’s clear by now that he would like everything Apple produces to look as close to a pure pane of glass as he can make it, with minimal, unadorned metallic frames, as close to unbroken and symmetrical as functionality allows. And Ive’s team is perfectly willing to sacrifice functionality in pursuit of this goal. A female Lightning port is fractionally thinner than a female USB-C port, and now you know why the iPhone will never get USB-C ports. Sorry. You’re lucky the one-port MacBook’s one port isn’t a Lightning port. (I have it on good authority that was under consideration.)

This often gets portrayed as a choice between staying chained to legacy hardware and forging ahead to the future. But if you were using Macs a decade ago, do you remember the way the power indicator light on a Mac, both desktop and laptop, used to slowly pulse when it was asleep, as if it were slowly breathing? Or the way batteries on laptops, both replaceable and permanent, used to let you check charge levels without turning on or waking up the machine. Or, as recently as last year, the way power plugs changed color to show charging state. All of that—along with the illuminated Apple logo and, now, the cheerful startup chime—has gone away.

All the price of progress, right?

A couple years ago, Shawn Blanc published a book about “how to make good things great” called Delight is in the Details. That phrase captures an essential paradox: we want our products to stay out of our way in everyday use, yet products that convert us from merely satisfied customers to fans have little touches that call attention to themselves in just the right way. When I start my Mazda, its display lights up with the words “Zoom Zoom” for just a few seconds. It’s stupid, but after six years it still makes me smile.

“Little touches that call attention to themselves” are the opposite of Ive’s guiding aesthetic. He creates beautiful objects you can appreciate as works of art. You can’t help but marvel at the lengths to which his team will go to make a perfect fusion of glass and metal, to craft UIs that appear to directly manipulate data, to make the hardware disappear while you’re using it. Under Ive’s direction, Apple delivers works which are closer to the science fiction future than any other major consumer electronics company. And yet his designs are relentlessly whimsy-free. There won’t be a moment that catches you off-guard and makes you smile. Ive’s work never aspires to make you giggle with delight.

Software doesn’t escape his penchant for austerity, either. The Ive era of software UX has been about flattening, removing, relentlessly stamping out skeuomorphism. The “traffic light” window controls are just circles now; the swirling barber pole progress bars are simple blue, with a subtle pulse; we don’t even get the little puff of smoke when we pull icons off the dock. I’m surprised the iOS icons still jiggle-dance when they’re in rearrangement mode. I’m not sure that it’s fair to say that we’re seeing a software analog to Apple’s quest for thinness, but I’m not sure it isn’t, either.

I’d hardly be the first one to complain about a perceived drop in software and UX quality, or to question whether Apple’s being a little too aggressive in dropping legacy ports. Yet it feels like that’s always been part of the deal, right? We’re taking away the floppy drive, or only giving you these weird USB ports, or sealing the battery in, but look at how cool we can make this thing now! It’s not like anything else on the market. It’s fun.

This iMac is the best computer I’ve ever owned, but nothing about it screams fun. The quirkiest thing about it is my mechanical keyboard, something Apple would never dream of making on their own these days. (So gauche.)

Yes, but you keep talking about the Mac line. The future is in iOS! Despite revealing myself in past posts as a Mac partisan, I think this is not only true but, overall, good. I’m a fan of that science fiction future, and it’s not one in which I see many people sitting down in front of 27″ monitors and keyboards for their computing needs—even if the monitors are holographic and the keyboards aren’t physical.

But man, talk about the “pure pane of glass” ideal, right?

The argument Apple is implicitly making is that computers—especially the computers of the future that the iPad typifies—are appliances. Appliances can be beautiful, but they shouldn’t exhibit frippery. They should be focused. We should prefer the Kitchen-Aid stand mixer to the plastic knockoff that does twice as much at half the price, because it won’t do any of those things well and it’ll fall apart in a year. (Besides, you can do all those things with the Kitchen-Aid, anyway; you’ll just need to buy some dongles.)

That’s all true. Maybe Ive knows best. But if you showed me a table with an iPad Pro, a Surface Pro, and a Surface Book on it and asked me to rank them in order of Cool Factor, I’d be hard-pressed to put the iPad at the head of the line. Microsoft isn’t trying for tiny-quirk delight, which is just as well (“It looks like you’re trying to add personality to your UX! Can I help?”), but they’re sweating small, thoughtful details. Apple sweats the details of manufacturing processes. That’s great, but it’s not the same thing.

Maybe—just maybe—a little frippery is okay, even if it adds a half-millimeter in depth to a product, or adds a touch of (gasp) skeuomorphism to the UI here and there, or allows a slightly less restrained, tasteful pigment on the anodized aluminum case. Injecting a bit of fun, even weirdness, to their computers in the late ’90s helped pull Apple back from the brink. It may be time for another injection.

Being Kitchen-Aid is a fine goal, but you know what? They sell that stand mixer in nearly three dozen colors.

Originally published at Hacker Noon.