Is TV Ready for Its iPhone Moment?

Why You Would be Naive to Underestimate Apple's Effect on TV

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A correction has been made in this story. See below for details.

It's been five years since Steve Jobs unveiled the "Jesus Phone" in January 2007, but I distinctly recall the criticism. The iPhone was too expensive. The touch screen was smudge-prone, the battery life woeful, the lack of a keyboard a deal breaker. My favorite quote, from one chief information officer at the time: "It's clear he [Steve Jobs] does not understand how important text [messaging] is."

But with all the hype and hype-busting, something happened when the phone became available for sale that summer: People held it in their hands and thought, "Oh my gosh, it's the internet on my phone!"

We had the web on our phones before that, of course, but the interface was clunky and the navigation sucked. The game changed once we were able to swipe and pinch and tap. Add in apps, as Apple did shortly after, and mobile's never been the same.

Today, according to Nielsen data, 5.4% of smartphone time is taken up by the phone's "dialer" function.* We're spending 2.3% of the time with music and video apps, 11% with the browser and more than half with "other" apps. And that cumbersome text messaging consumes 13.4%.

This new breed of smartphone has shaken up industries, from navigation to gaming, and replaced household items such as flashlights and alarm clocks for many of us.

Their constant companionship has also made our smartphones handy shopping tools -- to the chagrin of plenty of brick-and-mortar retailers. According to Nielsen, 29% of owners use their smartphones for shopping activities, including comparing prices and purchasing.

Reflecting on all this behavioral change over a relatively short time, I wonder what will happen when Apple introduces a TV, as it is expected to do later this year.

Is the TV ecosystem -- from programmers, to the marketers that rely on TV to sell products, to the ad agencies that buy its media -- ready for TV's iPhone moment? That realization of "Holy cow, it's the internet on my TV!"

Just as with the iPhone (or the iPad or iPod), Apple TV won't be the first device of its kind. Even without "smart TVs," we early-ish adopters are streaming via Xbox or Roku or even via the Airplay function on Apple's existing TV solution -- a deck-of-cards size box that brings wireless connectivity to your set.

But the Apple TV set will be beautiful and a breeze to hook up. It will usher in a whole new way to navigate nearly unlimited content through the electronic device that is still the star of the home. Here's how it was foreshadowed in Walter Isaacson's recent Steve Job bio:

Mr. Jobs "very much wanted to do for television sets what he had done for computers, music players and phones: make them simple and elegant. "I'd like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use. It would be seamlessly synced with all your devices and with iCloud.' No longer would users have to fiddle with complex remotes for DVD players and cable channels. "It would have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.'"

If you don't think that will have massive ramifications for our $60 billion TV-ad industry, think again. Why do you think YouTube is investing $100 million in a swath of niche "cable channels"? Why are streaming sites like Hulu and Netflix investing in original content?

The so-called traditional TV shows and networks we watch and love won't disappear after TV's iPhone moment, but they will have to stand out more. I continue to be surprised by all the stories of old-model protectionism rather than of preparing for the future.

When the Apple TV bows, I'm sure we'll hear the same stuff we've heard every time the company launches a disruptive device.

It's certain to be more expensive than nearly every other set on the market.

And plenty will argue that people don't really need the device. Because we hang onto TVs longer than we do phones or computers, they'll say there's no way it will have the impact of Apple's other innovations. But similar slams were leveled at the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad (that costly, "in-between" device that people weren't even asking for).

Though the iPhone wasn't the first smartphone, it ushered in a different way to think about and use mobile, and dramatically altered our behavior.

Underestimate Apple's imminent effect on TV at your peril.

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CORRECTION: The original version of this article stated that the 5.4% "dialing" time also included talking time, which it does not.XXX

Abbey Klaassen is editor of Ad Age. You can reach her at
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