Just in time for this week’s iPad event, rumors about Apple (s AAPL) building a TV set started popping up again. The company announced no such plans at the event, but that won’t stop fans and analysts alike from forecasting that Apple will unveil plans to take over the living room any day now.
But is that really what Apple should do? Margins in the TV space are thin, consumers only buy a new TV every five or seven years. And there’s no sign that Hollywood and the pay TV industry are going to allow unbundling, or even just Apple taking over Comcast’s UI, any time soon.
That’s why I’d like to propose a different product: Instead of trying to go big in the living room, only to compete with established players like Samsung and Vizio, Apple should go small, and target the kitchen with a 24-inch touchscreen TV.
The case for the kitchen
If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably found yourself using the iPad, or any other tablet, in the kitchen quite a bit. I like to watch the Daily Show when I wash dishes, catch up on video podcasts when I cook, and of course use the web as my cookbook. Only I find myself constantly frustrated by the experience.
Cooking is a great time to watch something in the background, especially during those many little breaks where you essentially just wait around for things to finally become edible. At the same time, you’ve got to have your recipes accessible, and you don’t want to constantly switch from one thing to another, especially once you get your hands dirty.
As a result, I’ve started to use two tablets in the kitchen. One for entertainment, one for recipes. It’s a completely ridiculous setup that takes up way too much counter space, and frequently results in the need to clean tomato sauce off of not one, but two screens.
Some of you might suggest I should just get a Surface, but that’s still not enough. What I want is a screen that’s big enough to give me access to both the information I need and the entertainment I want without having to make the choice to turn one of the two into a sidebar. A permanently mounted one, so it doesn’t get in the way. A touch screen for quick interaction, and voice control to help out when I don’t have any free hands.
Of course, Apple wouldn’t be the first one to give the kitchen a shot. HP has been trying to get its touchscreen PCs into America’s kitchens for years. But in the end, these machines are first and foremost computers, and you don’t need keyboards, spreadsheets or CD drives in the kitchen.
At the same time, there are plenty of things that computers are just so bad at that Apple could easily own this space by just offering a few extra features. Like, for example…
The family whiteboard
I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t a 24-inch touchscreen TV just a giant iPad? Yes, with a key difference: The iPad is mobile, an Apple kitchen TV would be mounted in place. That fundamentally changes how a device like this would be used. Even if shared, mobile devices are personal, and there is barely ever a strong connection between utility and location. A display with a bigger screen size on the other hand is necessarily communal, and a fixed location dictates usage patterns. That’s why you sit on your couch when you want to watch TV together.
But make the display more approachable and interactive, and you got yourself the perfect canvas for a whole range of additional functionality. One is the family whiteboard. The 24-inch TV in your kitchen could easily double as your grocery shopping list, or the space where you leave quick scribbled messages and video recordings. Sure there’s an app that does all of that on your phone, but what if your kids don’t have a phone yet? How are you going to leave a message for the baby sitter, or the person watching your house while you go on vacation? In other words: What is going to replace the sticky note on your fridge?
The personal news feed
When TV and set-top box makers think about the future of television, they envision giant displays that cover our living room walls, offering up both linear TV and personalized news feeds. Local weather, the morning commute, headlines and news clips to topics that matter to us.
That may well be the future of TV sets, but for now, big screens remain very expensive — and big touch-screens are completely out of reach for years to come. So why go big if you could display a lot of the same information on a smaller screen. And why display all of that information in the living room if everyone is crowding in the kitchen every morning anyway?
The command center for the connected home
I actually had a spirited debate with Stacey Higginbotham, Gigaom’s resident internet of things expert, with regards to this point, on our internal discussion system. Stacey believes that the connected home shouldn’t need a command center. I think a single screen, located centrally, where you can go to check your home’s vitals, and quickly adjust the air conditioning, make sure that you’ve turned off the light in the garage, or take a peek at other sensors would be great, and help people to get more comfortable with connecting everything. Plus it would place Apple at the center of the house, which is a pretty great place to be for the company.
The window connecting you to your loved ones
Real-time communication is another great use case for a stationary display. Imagine that 24-inch kitchen TV with a microphone that’s always listening for hot words, and a camera that’s always ready to jump into action and establish a connection to your partner’s kitchen. Or the house of your parents. Or anyone else you care about, and would love to be closer to.
Vancouver-based video startup Perch has been working on this kind of ambient telepresence for a while. The company initially wanted consumers to mount iPads to their walls, and establish a direct connection as soon as you’d look into the camera. Perch recently changed course and is now using the same technology to connect distributed work spaces because it found that consumers just don’t want to dedicate an iPad solely to becoming a telepresence device. But give them a device that offers enough other functionality and that’s already mounted in the right height, and you may just have a killer app at your hands.
It’s an Apple problem to solve
We know that Apple execs like Eddy Cue like to read Gigaom, so I’m going to add one more argument to the list: An 24-inch Apple TV for the kitchen wouldn’t just be great for consumers, it would also be great for Apple, because it would once again allow the company to boldly innovate.
Instead of trying to build a slightly better version of a product that everyone already has in their living room by developing a television, Apple should do what it did with the iPad: invent an entirely new product category, and make something that people didn’t even know they needed, but definitely want once they see it.