I've been thinking about how Apple [AAPL] might kick back against Samsung's smart television move when it is time for the company to (perhaps) introduce its branded Apple television set -- and I think it's possible the company will take a step beyond HD to Ultra HD should it take such a step.
Clamor on all channels
There's been lots of chatter claiming the company's future television set will be huge -- over 50-inches of Apple-branded screen real estate perched prettily in the corner of your room. Why might you need such a huge display?
There have also been claims the new television will have seamless support for iTunes, along with a series of additional connected services (hopefully including the capacity to access video from third-party services such as Netflix); support for apps, and more.
But what makes this different from any of the other smart television solutions that are hitting the market at the moment?
You might have heard some of the speculation the television will be easy to navigate, offering a combination of remote controlled, spoken word and -- possibly -- gesture-based instruction. In conjunction with Apple's experience in the development of simple users interfaces on its iDevice range, you should find these things extremely easy to navigate.
Before he died, Steve Jobs told his biographer, Walter Isaacson:
"I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use," he told me. "It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud." No longer would users have to fiddle with complex remotes for DVD players and cable channels. "It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it."
Samsung seems to have done its best to implement similarly consumer-focused user controls on its latest range of televisions, of course, so what else might Apple be offering?
There's been many claims Apple is in negotiation with Sharp to use the Japanese firm's advanced displays (IGZO) in its devices. These displays are being touted for their thinness (so we can expect these new televisions to be the thinnest around), and for their economical use of power.
Apple's revolution in resolution
However my vision for Apple's television future says there's more to the Sharp connection than meets the eye, and I'm going to explain what this might be later in this tract.
Sharp last week introduced two new televisions and one computer monitor, showing these at tradeshow, CES.
These displays made use of the IGZO displays Apple has reportedly been speaking to the company about.
These displays respond to touch, but, more importantly, they deliver a huge number of pixels -- enough pixels, in fact, for you to watch shows transmitted in Ultra HD, using the up and coming HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding) format, which seems set for ratification as an industry standard at an international meeting scheduled to be held in Geneva later this month.
If you were in the UK and caught any of the public screenings of the Olympics opening ceremony last year, you'll have seen the kind of high-quality broadcasts HEVC is capable of.
HEVC/H.265 supports resolutions up to 8,192-x-4,320 and delivers double the data compression ratio of H.264. Where H.264 supports a maximum macroblock of 16-x-16 pixels, HEVC delivers up to 64-x-64 pixels.
What it does
The video standard also offers "internal bit depth increase", which means images can be internally processed at a bit depth higher than that with which they are encoded.
Manageable file sizes can be attributed to the standard's high-quality imaging support in conjunction with a far lower bitrate in comparison with earlier codecs. HEVC is also optimized for parallel processing, meaning you can decode different parts of the media simultaneously.
Put more simply, HEVC enables transmission of HD video streams at half the bit rate, (and half the bandwidth and half the storage) of existing formats.
Adoption of the standard -- and RealNetworks, Rovio, Samsung, Sony and many others are already moving to deliver software, services and/or devices that support it -- means we are on the edge of seeing UltraHD quality video assets made available online, on disks and via broadcast channels. Though of course it will take time until all these elements are widely available.
Once shows in the format become widely available we can anticipate home cinema experiences at qualities we haven't really seen before.
What's key to my vision is that Apple's iPad already supports HEVC, albeit a pre-ratified version of the standard. In other words, Apple's on it.
Because even though the promise of HEVC (the successor to H.264) is huge, televisions that support it remain prohibitively expensive. For example, Samsung's CES 2013-introduced plasma displays that support the format cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Samsung is after all unlikely to fully implement support for HEVC across its range of televisions until it can manufacture these devices affordably; and it won't invest in that aim until there's a demand for TVs which can display video encoded in this format.
In any case, even where an HEVC show is available, add-on devices such as the PlayStation 4, a future Apple TV, or anything else, will still need a screen capable of supporting it.
Though it is important to bear in mind MRG's December 2012 report which estimates that the number of shipped devices already capable -- with a software upgrade -- of HEVC decoding reached 1 billion in 2012.
In front of your Retina
Apple's been banging on about display resolution forever -- just look at the way the company likes to brag that you actually get more pixels on the screen of your iPad than you do on an HD TV. The company's been driving home its point about high-res displays for quite some time now.
IAny UltraHD television is going to need Ultra HD programming in order for the feature to be of any use at all. Fortunately Apple -- which seems to have a pretty good relationship with some of the big movie houses, including Disney -- has that under control, it has the iTunes Store.
There have been numerous claims Apple's been meeting with cable service providers in recent months. It's not beyond the pale to suggest one element of these meetings might have explored the impact on cable broadband networks of video transmissions in HEVC. Can their networks support it? Can they ensure no data drops? Can Apple's TV revolution be streamed?
“I expect (HEVC) Internet video to come first to mobile devices and PCs because they are software upgradable,” Michelle Abraham, MRG Analyst, said. “Many service providers will wait until set-top boxes with HEVC decoding SoCs are available.”
Set-top boxes, huh? Like the Apple TV? Or the Apple television? After all, Apple has apparently also been attempting to reach deals with cable firms in which its device(s) are used as cable firm-supplied set top boxes. And, of course, it's doubtful Apple's the only firm to have been doing the rounds on this.
Something like this?
Apple's plan for its television potentially suggests the company will offer features loosely-based on the following:
- A huge Ultra HD display.
- Thin, light and Ive-designed.
- Support for shows in UltraHD and other next-gen formats.
- iTunes integration.
- High-speed Wi-Fi, built-in
- Support for UltraHD movie rentals, streams and purchases via the iTunes Store.
- Sharp's newly-revealed UltraHD displays
- Siri, iOS, apps and Internet support.
It also means iTunes will be among the first -- if not the first -- services to offer up content in the high-resolution video format. "This is bigger than HD," Phil Schiller will explain. And it is.
If my vision isn't completely faulty, Apple will also attempt to ensure these televisions are made available at prices consumers can afford.
Not only this, but users will enjoy that they can watch a show on their television, pause it, and then watch the rest of it on their iPad while they travel -- no coding, decoding, or any other fuss and bother required. And still at extraordinarily high video quality.
A few hints
The idea that iTunes plans a high-resolution service isn't so bizarre: In February 2012, the company launched its Mastered For iTunes initiative. Subsequent to this came a wave of claims the company intends offering 24-bit audio via its service (CD quality audio, basically, without the CD -- take that, Amazon!).
As revealed by PSN Europe, Apple's Mastered For iTunes technical documentation states:
"As technology advances and bandwidth, storage, battery life and processor power increase, keeping the highest quality masters available in our systems allows for full advantage of future improvements to your music. Also, though it may not be apparent because there may not always be a physical, tangible master created in LP or CD format, the iTunes catalog forms an important part of the world’s historical and cultural record. These masters matter – especially given the move into the Cloud on post-PC devices."
The report explains the company may adopt a new high-res audio format in order to offer up CD-quality downloads via iTunes. The intention on the part of the firm to do this goes some way toward explaining why labels have been prepared to permit Amazon to offer MP3 versions of music files as a free gift with every CD sold, if you think about it. (Anyone with interest in music should probably read the PSN Europe report for more on this).
When it comes to moving images, we know there have been some problems securing the correct permissions from incumbents within the industry. They don't want to see their ads revenues impacted by new television systems. But they're under pressure from advertisers who want the kind of detail and control over who sees the ads they might expect from intelligent devices, so their reluctance will inevitably fold.
So there we have it. Should Apple decide to introduce its purported Apple television to market, the company seems in position twin the release with an upgraded iTunes capable of delivering UltraHD video assets and CD-quality audio files. That's even before we look to iRadio streaming.
A Christmas wish
The importance of iTunes to creating the content ecosystem and advanced television such as this might need also points to something else.
We're unlikely to see too much of this new beast until October. I'm predicting introduction on or around October 5: this is the hot product for this year's Christmas market -- which suggests a certain confidence when it comes to price, though it won't be cheap.
There's one caveat, of course, it's possible we'll be given a sense of what to expect at WWDC this year, should Apple decide to make public release of a software SDK developers might use to create apps for these systems -- though it wouldn't be beyond credulity for the firm to simply reach deals with hand-picked apps developers to create these, keeping a wider SDK introduction back until WWDC 2014, by which time it might expect a few million of these new TV sets to already be in the hands of eager, and, on previous form, extremely happy consumers -- giving developers an immediate market, of course.
If Apple delivers on just some of this, it will have an exciting product proposition. And it wouldn't be the first time the company's jumped on a standard (in this case, HEVC) to both fully realize what it's capable of, and popularize it. Remember Wi-Fi?
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