The patent in question, number 8,099,665, was filed in late 2006 and among the short list of inventors listed one name, inevitably, stands out: Steve Jobs. The fact that Jobs is listed here adds a certain extra value to what's included in the filing but it's not actually the most interesting part. Among the ideas falling under the general description—"A method of organizing episodic content includes identifying a list of items associated with episodic content and sorting the list of items based on at least episode order upon a prompt"—are several that we've not seen displayed by Apple yet. They could be core features of the long-hinted Apple Television.
The main thrust of the patent is pretty straightforward, and in plain language we find it's a system for an Apple TV to work out that videos form episodes as part of a TV series. By querying a remote data source, the TV can use metadata associated with the videos so users can identify the series they're interested in, and find the relevant clip by sorting it in different ways (number, title, data it was first broadcast and so on). Artwork relevant to the clips is shown, and there's also scope for "promotional material" to be displayed, individually or linked to menu items...which is a hint at advertising in the system, even if it's as simple as "New episode available! Just $0.79" or something similar.
People who own an Apple TV will see this as a familiar way to present data—it's perfectly aligned with the way the Apple TV's menu system works.
But there's more to the patent. How about the fact that "The menu items, can, for example, correspond to television shows that have either been recorded from a broadcast or purchased from a content provider"? There's no facility in the current Apple TV hardware to actually record TV, as a Digital Video Recorder, althought the technology is surely capable of it in many ways.
In the wording of patents it's prudent to cover your bases, of course, so this may be just a piece of careful protection put in by Apple. But recorded content is mentioned several times. In fact the ability to record, pause, or otherwise time-shift broadcast television would be a key expectation in some way if Apple did make a full-featured Apple Television set (assuming the set would also integrate with existing modes of getting TV content to users, via radio, cable or Net connection). As PatentlyApple notes, a 2011 patent is more explicit about this idea, stating a similar system "could also be used to connect a media environment to a video content provider, such as a cable service provider."
Later in the patent documentation there's mention of the remote control unit users would interact with. The generic controller mentioned includes a "rotational input device." In the hardware imagined here, it sounds something like the original iPod click wheel. The patent does note that other input systems could work too—it could "comprise a rectangular surface, a square surface, or some other shaped surface. Other surface geometries that accommodate pressure sensitive areas and that can sense touch actuations may also be used, e.g., an oblong area, an octagonal area" and may include click features, separate buttons, and gestures of sorts.
There are hints here of the current Apple remote, but also a suggestion that Apple's really trying to reimagine the control paradigm for TVs. Elsewhere the patent notes "It is desirable that the user interface conveys information to the user in an intuitive manner. However, current media devices often present the information in a poorly organized manner, and do not provide the capability to reorganize the information according to one or more aspects related to the information." That's right up there with the thinking revealed by Steve Jobs's now-famous "cracked it" quote when talking about a TV interface—because, let's face it, the menu on your TV or your cable provider's set-top-box usually sucks, being inelegant and also not allowing you to sort the content in ways that might be more useful. There's also evidence here that Apple's model would disrupt the idea of channels and broadcast times—because if you commanded a TV to sort shows by genres like comedy, or by broadcast time, the actual source of the show would be irrelevant to you.
And yes, we know that picking through patent text is a risky and generally unrewarding endeavor. But what we can draw from this one is that Steve Jobs really was intimately associated with designing a better digital TV paradigm as far back as 2006, and that many thoughts about how the interface would benefit the user (rather than the TV show creator or the network its broadcast over) were in place already. We also know that many other patents (some appied for, some granted) cover similar, and more complex ideas.
Meanwhile there seems to be no letup in rumors that relate to an Apple-made television. Coming from the Wall Street Journal, some of the latest gossip carries an extra edge, as Apple may use that newspaper to "leak" in a controlled way to influence the media: Recently it quite clearly stated that Apple's been talking with many media executives to share its "vision" of the future of TV. That may imply it has at least a prototype of the UI to demonstrate, if not hardware, and is confident enough in its model that it wants to bring content-creators and providers up to speed long before it launches the hardware on the market. Does that Apple Television rumor sound a little more interesting to you yet?
[Image: Flickr user williamhartz]