Make Room on the Couch for Steve

Steve Jobs's talk last week was nearing an end and coming dangerously close to a letdown. The stuff he introduced--a freshening-up of the iPod line and the ability to download movies on iTunes--had been largely expected. And he'd already used his famous fanfare--"One more thing ... "-- that usually precedes the introduction of a mind-blowing new product. But Jobs, with something still up his sleeve, this time announced "one last thing," and, in a break from tradition, unveiled a product that will not ship until next year. It's code-named iTV, a small box (the size of a sushi tray) intended to bridge the gap between the way we entertain ourselves on our computers and the way we distract ourselves in the living room.

The early notice was necessary because, as Jobs realizes, the whole idea of downloading movies on your computer leads one to wonder why we can't easily watch the flicks where we usually do--on our TVs. "It would have been the first question out of everyone's mouth," Jobs says. "We thought, Let's complete the puzzle," The sneak peek was particularly welcome because I'm not terribly excited about downloading movies, either the 75 offerings from Disney on the iTunes store or the several hundred movies from other studios on the Unbox system launched by Amazon just before the Apple event. Though I agree with Jobs that downloads are the wave of future, for now I'm pretty happy with my current regimen of buying DVDs or renting them from Blockbuster or Netflix. Also, the price isn't right. Downloading a movie costs up to $15 for new films, and 10 bucks for the backlist, even though similarly priced DVDs are more portable, can be wrapped as gifts and often come with cool bonus features.

On the other hand, Apple's iTV product promises to be a classic Apple shot at a previously elusive sweet spot. Our computers have become fantastic media devices, holding our songs, our pictures and now our TV shows and movies--but there's no easy, elegant way to get hold of that stuff while sprawled out in potato-land. iTV wants to be The Way. Instead of trying to be a digital workhorse with DVD drives, a hard disk and a tuner, it's simply a Wi-Fi-enabled connection machine that cracks open all the stuff in your computer (and potentially, stuff on the Internet) and zips it to the TV set. "The breakthrough came when we realized that we didn't have to replace the set-top box," says Jobs. "It's OK if we adopt the DVD player as our model. Then you can hook up to anything. Just be like a DVD player that happens to play Internet videos."

From YouTube to boob tube? Could be. In addition to the photos, movies, TV shows and tunes on your hard drive, iTV, with the ridiculously minimal six-button Apple remote, lets you go to the Net to get stuff. Last week Jobs showed only a menu item that pulls in movie trailers, but when you open up your iTunes library, you can also listen to bits of new music recommended by the iTunes store. Is it possible that when iTV ships next year, you may also be able to choose a menu item called Google Video, and then zip through the best of the thousands of user-submitted videos on the search giant's service? Google's consumer product chief, Marissa Mayer, tells me that indeed, the two companies are engaged in talks.

It's inevitable that one day the boundaries between television and the computer will dissolve, but there are endless technicalities to hurdle. Could a simple $299 box really break the logjam? It seems like a stretch--but that's what people said when Apple set out to change digital music.