Apple's gadgetry raises questions about need for content

For news junkies, Apple has been pretty hard to avoid lately. First the company’s valuation climbed to a record $624 billion — eclipsing (albeit not when adjusted for inflation) a mark set by Microsoft in 1999. Then there was its $1 billion patent victory over Samsung, with all its potential ramifications regarding tech development.

Still, anecdotal evidence of Apple’s clout might be even more daunting. Watch a toddler manipulate an iPhone or iPad and you quickly realize how staggeringly intuitive these products are. The same goes for computer-phobic seniors, putting the device in that rare “from 2 to 92″ demographic sweet spot.

But in such a fast-changing game, is just delivering content enough?

Writing in Time magazine, technology industry analyst Tim Bajarin suggested tablets and smartphones are “ushering in a new era of personalized computing,” and “the greatest shakeup in the world of computing that has ever taken place.”

While Apple stands at the forefront of this revolution, the company has avoided getting into the content business. But will Apple — having built a better mousetrap — turn its attention to making cheese, too?

Is Apple thinking beyond mere gadgetry, wondering how entertainment and news content might adapt to capitalize on how the company’s gizmos handle media consumption? Does Apple have some developer locked away in a basement, dreaming up next-generation programming formats best suited to phones and pads?

If so, Apple wouldn’t discuss such things, a spokeswoman assured me, which — given the way releasing a new iPhone model is treated like electing a Pope — hardly comes as a surprise.

Still, with persistent rumors that Apple has a new TV in mind — which, taken to logical extremes, could do for the cable/satellite business what the iPhone and iPad have done to portable computing, or the iPod to music — it will be interesting to see whether Apple, or rivals, begin seriously braving those waters.

Thus far, Apple has stayed pretty agnostic regarding the content itself, which doesn’t mean it’s a stranger to Hollywood. It was the company’s late founder Steve Jobs, after all, who rescued Pixar from Lucasfilm, enabling the animator to grow into the filmmaking powerhouse Disney acquired in 2006.

At the time, AP speculated that closer ties to Apple “could help Disney CEO Robert Iger push his plans to marry films, TV shows, videogames and other content to computers, iPods, handheld game consoles and even cell phones.”

The industry has certainly lurched in that direction. As Ericsson reported in its latest annual ConsumerLab study, use of social media while watching TV has risen sharply in just the last year. In addition, “on the move” TV viewing outside the home is also increasing, facilitated by mobile broadband connections.

What hasn’t really changed, though, is the actual content. Yes, companies like Hulu and Netflix are churning out programs, but for the most part those look like regular TV shows — just generally shorter, and cheaper.

Conventional wisdom says there’s nothing new under the sun from a storytelling standpoint. And most attempts to tinker with the equation — particularly in the interactive realm — have foundered.

Could that change as means of media consumption continue to evolve?

Apple and other major tech players are wise to tread cautiously into this world, though a media acquisition would certainly provide an interesting lab to try out a product line. It’s been reported that CBS CEO Leslie Moonves rebuffed Jobs when approached about providing content to a subscription TV service — an indignity Apple might be spared in the future should it choose to use a small portion of its billions to buy into content production.

Admittedly, there’s plenty we still don’t know about the digital age, including the unspoken social costs. It was hard not to wince, for example, recently observing a family of four sit down for what appeared to be a nice dinner out — exceptthe young sons stared silently into their iPads, while the parents acted as if they were having dinner alone.

Technology has changed a lot, including our sense of disconnectedness and what constitutes family time. Given that, it’s both intriguing and unsettling to contemplate how shifting methods of delivery could revise not just how and where we watch, but what we watch too.

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