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Talking to the TV

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Steve Jobs’ claim to his biographer that he had “finally cracked” the secret to building an Apple-worthy TV has had the same effect on Apple watchers that Fermat’s Last Theorem had on mathematicians.

In 1637, Pierre de Fermat scribbled his famous conjecture (involving number theory) in the margin of a mathematics textbook, adding that he had found an “elegant proof ” of the hypothesis but that the margin lacked the space to include it.

Fermat then died before he could publish his purported proof, and mathematicians spent the next 358 years trying obsessively to recover his secret.

Though speculating about Apple’s TV intentions was already a cottage industry among analysts, Jobs’ cryptic comment, followed by his untimely death, sent the hunt into overdrive. Fortunately, it looks like we won’t have to wait 358 years to learn the answer.

Once Apple introduced the iPhone 4S with the Siri voice-recognition interface, New York Times Bits blogger Nick Bilton, who had spent a year obsessively hunting the Apple TV across the supply chains of Taiwan and China, announced that Siri was the secret key to which Jobs was alluding.

Simply by talking to their Apple TV, Bilton claimed, users will be able to elegantly and easily navigate among apps, interactive services and live TV without scrolling through endless menus or fumbling with a remote.

As it happened, however, Fermat was either wrong about having found a proof for his theorem, or he was pulling everyone’s leg. When the definitive solution was finally published — by British mathematician Andrew Wiles, in 1995 — it was anything but elegant and relied on branches of mathematics that were unknown in Fermat’s time.

So how much faith should we have in Jobs’ claim to have finally cracked the secret to an elegant interactive TV experience? Certainly some, based on everything else Jobs accomplished in his lifetime, but I’m reserving judgment for now. Unless that interface can integrate with the content and services that consumers want to watch on their TVs, it’s just a slicker remote control. And there’s no guarantee that Siri will be able to integrate with those services.

At the GigaOM RoadMap conference this week, thePlatform CEO Ian Blain showed off the new cloud-based TV interface that his company has built for Comcast, which owns thePlatform. While perhaps not as innovative as Siri, it’s likely to have one distinct advantage over Apple or any other third-party user interface: access to all the content and services available on Comcast’s linear cable, VOD and broadband platforms.

Just how jealously pay-TV providers will guard access to their offerings by third parties was obvious last year with the introduction of Google TV. Despite Google’s search prowess, Google TV was unable to index content on users’ DVR or on the VOD platform of their pay-TV service provider without the consent of the service provider. Only Dish Network gave its consent.

Google is now rolling out a new version of Google TV, with much-improved navigation and a more intuitive interface. But, as Google’s Shanna Prevé acknowledged at this week’s Streaming Media West conference, it, too, will be unable to integrate DVR recordings or VOD offerings without service-provider buy-in, which is no more likely to be forthcoming this time than it was the last time around.

Both Apple TV and Google TV will come with native app stores, TV-optimized browsers and access to plenty of over-the-top content, of course. But unless Apple has figured out a way to gain access to service providers’ own content offerings, Steve Jobs’ last theorem remains an unproved hypothesis.

Question of the week

Has Apple really cracked the secret to reinventing the TV user experience?