There are rumblings that Apple is working on an iTV (a name I used back 2005 during an MBA presentation, but I digress), and there are those who are calling for Apple to run their lives. It is my belief that it is in Microsoft’s best interests to get ahead of this and put something out there that is unique, useful, and user-friendly before Apple does, or soon after, if they’re slow, before it becomes another market that Apple seals off from Microsoft (after phones, tablets, and MP3 Players). Microsoft needs to be more agile, more complete in execution (X-Box Music/Video are abysmal failures in interface design, to be honest. Put pivots in there so I actually know that there’s music to be heard.), and more thoughtful in feature-sets. I will illustrate my point.
Surface TV Concept 1: Full-TV Set
This would be a more integrated solution than a mere set-top box, but with Smart TVs becoming more commonplace, this might be a sensible solution. I would envision Microsoft creating perhaps 3 or 4 TV models: 42″, 55″, 70″, and 80″, each with 1920×1080 resolution, or, UHD resolution of 3840 × 2160. The latter would be wiser for future-proofing the sets, with backlit LED LCD instead of edge-lit.
The TV sets should at least have 3 HDMI 1.4 inputs for the 42″ model, 4 on the 55″, and 5-7 on the larger versions. People have multiple devices, and it’s smart to be prepared for them using them and wanting to use them.
It would be very simple in interface design. I see no need to abandon the use of Live Tiles, but the background on the TV would be either black, or use the main user’s photos in a slide-show or static mode to be the background to help prevent burn-in. In the event of loss of internet connection, the device will not stop working, but will update to show the lack of connection and let the user know only local content is available. At no time should an internet connection become an excuse for the system to stop working.
Any computer on the Homegroup which has shared folders would be available source content for the Surface TV, so you could have 1 computer, or 10 computers. All you have to do is enter your Homegroup information and your pictures, videos, music, and podcasts become available sources for media for the TV. The TV will ask you to create (or just do it itself) two to four new Libraries on your computers: Movies, TV, Music Videos, and Audiobooks, so that if you want to watch TV shows, it will know that whatever is in the TV Library is a TV show. TV Shows you purchase would automatically be sorted in series folders, then season folders (Walking Dead for example: c:\TV Shows\Walking Dead\Season 1\Walking Dead – S01E01.wmv).
From the main screen, you would have Live Tiles for the following: Live TV, Movie Library, TV Library, Podcasts, Music Library, Games, Weather, News, Travel, Movie Listings, TV Guide, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, ViMeo, Kindle, ESPN, NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL. A Windows Store tile would let you download additional TV-specific apps, and also games you can load on the TV too. You see all the tiles on one screen. While watching TV, you can click the Start button, and a small row of tiles show at the bottom (or top) of the screen, so you can watch TV while navigating your menus.
Content from online sources would be controlled with a 4-digit PIN if you choose, based on rating, along with local content that could be matched to the X-Box Music/Video library. Any video files you purchased or have saved locally would be matched to the X-Box Video marketplace so that the system knows that what you renamed to IM2.wmv is really the movie Iron Man 2, for example.
Formats supported would include at least: MP3, MP4, M4V, WAV, WMA (in all iterations), WMV (in all iterations), OGG, H.264, MKV, AAC, AIFF, MPEG, MPG, MPEG2. The device would support multiple audio tracks in a file, and embedded subtitles in a file. Users can write plug-ins for the Surface TV if they want, that would be available in the Windows Store, in a section that only appears on the TV itself.
You could pair the TV with a keyboard and mouse, an eHome remote, or just use voice and motion control. If paired with a keyboard, drill-down searching would be enabled if you just start typing on it. If you wanted to watch Doctor Who, for example, “The Sontaran Strategem,” you would just start typing “sonta” and it would automatically filter down to all series, episodes, movies, music, podcasts, and audiobooks containing that phrase. Finding things would be that easy. If you use the remote, T9 correction would be enabled, like Smart Dialing on your old Windows Mobile phones.
The Music interface will appear like Windows Media Center, a huge wall of album covers, with album-specific information displayed over that wall when you select an album. You would see pivots at top for title, artist, genre, year, and composer so you can re-arrange your albums accordingly. Each category would show “pages” – by title, all A-albums show up on the screen, and slightly to the right, you can see the hint of albums starting with B. Organize by Artist, the same thing would be seen. Organize by year, and you’d see the albums released in 1985, to the right, 1986, and so on (with the option to group by decade).
When sorted by artist, you would view an artist page, similar to that from Zune’s desktop software (as opposed to X-Box Music, which has too much wasted space). You see all the albums on the bottom and you can create playlists here if you want, or just listen to music, or, using the pivots, view music videos by the artist, or see friends who like this artist. You can share this artist to Facebook/Twitter if you want, share the now playing song or playlist, or even the album playing. The MixView from Zune would also appear here as well, so that you can see which artists are similar to the band you’re listening to, and which artists influenced them, so that you can discover new music. SmartDJ playlists would also be present. Additionally, you can see local events related to this artist, and new concerts where the artist is playing near you, with links to purchase tickets to see the concert.
While playing music, the Zune screensaver effect would be used with rotating album covers and color overlays, with floating/flying text of the artist playing with artist artwork scrolling across the screen.
When viewing an artist, you can see the music videos that artist released, and watch them from the artist page, like Zune could do. You could even do a Smart DJ music video list when you have friends over so that it would pick out music videos from local and online content that match the song you use to ‘seed’ the playlist. How useful would that be?
With Kinect built-in, you could ask the TV: “TV, show me the popular rock music from Canada” and it will give you the top 10 or top 20 rock genre music from Canada as a playlist ready for you to listen to. This kind of feature was demonstrated in the Microsoft “Home of the Future” video on Youtube.
When viewing TV Shows, it would start a hub showing new TV shows, upcoming, and recommended shows based on past viewing and purchases, both shows on live TV as well as those available on X-Box Video. You can choose to just view a list of your TV Shows instead of the hub if you wish, and you can choose to view only local content or local+online in your TV Show listing and TV Hub. The TV Show Hub would have a list to the left for genres and networks so you can view and purchase/rent shows from there; integration with Hulu and Netflix would appear so that you can view the show in Netflix or Hulu if you have those accounts set up. There would be no intermediate screens here – you click the ‘view in netflix’ button and that specific episode simply starts playing. That’s it.
The TV Hub would also have a social feed either as a crawl at the bottom or on the right-most side like in Facebook, where you can see what friends are watching, liking, commenting on, or you can see what’s new in the Marketplace, based on things you’ve watched, liked, or wishlisted before.
The TV show list would have pivots at the top of the screen for ‘series’ ‘genre’ ‘year’ ‘rating’ ‘people’ ‘friends’ and ‘new’. The Friends pivot lets you view your friends’ TV show collections to get ideas of what to watch, to comment on their shows, and to ‘like’ the shows they’ve seen (series as a whole, or specific episodes). The new pivot shows you the newest and unviewed shows you have. Series would sort by series, with each letter on a separate on-screen ‘page’ in keeping with the Metro style of ‘peeking’ at the next letter to the right. You scroll up and down to keep viewing the letter A, swipe right to see B, and so on. Genre organizes series by genre, so ‘Action’ would be first, then ‘Adventure’, and so on. All shows that are ‘action’ shows would be on the first page, then all adventure shows on the next. Year would organize shows by year of release, so Star Trek would be 1966, and Doctor Who would be 1963 and 2005 for the new series, for example. Rating would group by the TV ratings, so that if you wish you can lock out via parental controls certain TV shows based on rating or content (alcohol use, language, etc). So if you want your kids to watch something, you could set the TV page to only TV-G and genre to animated so they don’t accidentally start watching something like Game of Thrones or NCIS.
Your TV Library will give you little pop-on numbers showing new episodes that were recorded or downloaded from X-Box Video. Swipe left from ‘series’ and you’d see ‘new’ showing only unviewed episodes, and ‘upcoming’ to show you upcoming episodes, and if you choose, recommended episodes or shows based on your viewing habits.
The Movie Hub would show you genres down the left and studios, and the main page would show you new releases, upcoming movies in theaters, most watched movies by rental/purchase, and a social feed of what your friends are watching/liking/commenting on. You can disable the hub and only show your local library, local+online for streaming library, or local+suggestions which would include recommendations based on what you bought, rented, and liked around your friends’ lists or on the X-Box Video library. The interface would be more like Zune than X-Box Video, since XBV’s interface is currently clunky and not very intuitive.
Viewing lists of movies would include pivots at the top for title, genre, year, rating, recommendations, and people. Title would be like TV Shows, showing the titles alphabetically for your movies; genre, year, and rating work as you would expect them to work. Recommendations would show you new in the marketplace for rental, purchase, and new in theaters based on movies you’ve purchased, rented, liked, or marked as ones you’ve seen in theaters. The Surface TV would note which movies you marked as ‘seen’ in theaters to base recommendations for future movies, which can be improved if you mark such movies as “like” or “Didn’t like.” Again, parental controls can help you limit what you allow your kids to see so they only see G-rated films and specific films you allow them to watch.
The Movie Hub would connect to online lists of movies, so that you can mark which movies you want to see, such as Iron Man 3, Star Trek: Into Darkness, and Riddick. The upcoming list would show by week what’s coming up, and highlight what it thinks you might like (and why). The week of, you would be reminded on the in-device calendar, and have the option to purchase tickets online for that movie. The day of, you would get a toast notification on your Windows Phone that the movie is released and you can go see it in theaters. You could also invite friends to see a movie, and they can accept, propose a different time, and decline invites. Invites will also show you any conflicting appointments, and suggest friends who might also like to see this movie with you as well.
The Podcast Hub would show you your subscribed podcasts, let you watch listen anywhere and pick up where you left off. You could even enter a few interests, such as ‘technology,’ ‘languages,’ ‘Swedish language podcasts,’ and ‘gardening’ and it would suggest podcasts for you to subscribe. Audiobooks as a hub would show you purchased audiobooks along with books available to purchase, based on actual books you’ve bought in the past. With this, you could leave the TV running while cooking or re-arranging the den, or just playing cards, and listen to your books at the same time.
The Travel Hub would let you plan vacations, setting a series of destinations, and pulling in recommendations for hotels, restaurants, and sites, based on the sites your friends on Facebook have visited, and if you don’t use Facebook, you get that information directly from friends’ Microsoft accounts and Bing Scrapbook feature. You set several places you want to see, such as Boston, Plymouth, and Newport RI, and a few things you want to see, such as The Breakers, Cheers, Plymouth Plantation, and the Boston Museum. Then it’ll suggest places to eat near those, other sites in those cities to see, such as Plymouth Rock, and keep a running total of the cost of the trip for you. You would set how you want to get there – air, car, train, and it would look for airplane tickets near your departure date, by car it would estimate mileage and stop points for gas, and train the nearest train depot.
The News Hub would pull in news from various sources, and give priority to sources you enter, while also prioritizing news topics you want to hear about, such as “Apple” or “Microsoft” or “Congress.” This would operate pretty much like the News App on Windows 8.
The Killer Features
The killer feature I would envision for a Surface TV would be Kinect being built in to the set, allowing for motion tracking, motion control, and voice control of the TV right from the start. This would let you control the TV and all media functions right from the comfort of your couch without needing a remote. You would just say “TV, play ‘the Patriot’ on Blu-Ray” and it would turn on your Blu-Ray player, set the TV to that input, and you’re ready to go. Say “TV, play ‘Star Trek’ from 2009” and if you bought that on Zune/X-Box Video, it would just start playing. You wouldn’t need to open anything or change settings. The TV would just do it. Tell it “TV, play some oldies from the 60’s” and it would create a playlist from your music library, then from the X-Box Music library, which would pre-queue so there’s no pausing between songs.
The second would be SmartGlass on your Surface tablet or other Windows Tablets. This would allow you to control the action on the screen using your tablet, or get more information on the tablet screen based on the movie you’re watching, or the TV show you’re viewing. If a particular actor comes on screen, the SmartGlass screen could show actor and character information particular to that episode, for example.
The third would be video chat using the built-in Kinect, and the fourth would be simultaneous watching of media together, so you and a friend miles away can view a photo slideshow with you narrating, a movie together, or a TV show. Distance would be not so bad this way.
Fifthly, based on the Microsoft Home of the Future, you would have the device recognize things in a scene, so if you paused on a scene where the main thing was a VW bug and a can of Coke, it would recognize those items in the scene and offer to search for those online for purchase, or a shirt or backpack. If there’s a restaurant on the screen, it will bring up a search term for that restaurant, and you can put that on a travel itinerary if you’re taking a vacation to New York, for example, to go to that restaurant when you visit.
Surface TV Concept 2: Set-Top Box
This is a less-integrated version of the system, but still useful for older TVs. It would be everything above, but in a set-top box with a blu-Ray drive, SD-card slot, ethernet port, and HDMI 1.4 out to the TV, and a Kinect on top.
Either way they do this, Microsoft would be well served and completely integrated with all their other services. Apple is already shown that they can integrate their services and just make it work, without much, if any, user hassle regarding access rights (X-Box Video on Windows Phone 8?, X-Box video in general?), or having unavailable content (try getting Get Smart, the TV Show, or any Star Trek series on X-Box Video). The question is, can Microsoft create a set-top box or TV Set itself that will be so tightly integrated, easy to use, and intuitive, that people will willingly choose it over Apple?