An Apple Television Can Be a Game Changer

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View

Months ago, rumors first surfaced that Apple might be planning to enter the television market — via an Apple-branded flat-panel TV (as opposed to the current Apple TV, the add-on that remains Apple’s longest-running “hobby”). 

My initial reaction to this news, assuming it was true, was: “Whatever for?”

On the one hand…

The rationale behind my skepticism was this:

Flat-panel televisions come in a range of sizes from 26 to 70 inches. Apple is unlikely to offer models in all these sizes, at least initially. Having so many sizes wouldn’t fit with Apple’s minimalist simplicity empahsis. Plus, it’s not a good way for any company to test the waters with a new product. More realistically, they might offer two sizes, a smaller (42”) and a larger (50”) one. While this is a reasonable thing to do, it also limits Apple’s marketshare possibilities right from the starting gate.

That’s just the beginning. Even for consumers interested in a 42” or 50” television, an Apple set would be a tough sell. For one thing, it’s likely that most of Apple’s potential customers already own a recently purchased TV (there’s been an explosion in sales in the last few years). I doubt they will be inclined to spend $1000 or more to replace their current TV — especially in this bad economy — even for an new Apple product. Making matters more difficult for Apple, TVs do not become obsolete nearly as quickly as computers. It’s not unusual for consumers to keep a television in active duty for a decade or more. Add it all up, and you have a significant challenge for generating sales for an Apple television over the next few years.

Finally, there’s the existing Apple TV add-on. As I told Chuck Joiner in a MacNotables podcast awhile back: “There’s no point in coming out with an Apple television if it’s just an ordinary television with Apple TV features built-in.” Why is there no point? Because the add-on solution works better. Take my own situation. I have three LCD televisions, ranging from 32 to 55 inches. I could equip all of them with Apple TV’s for $300. If I ever need to replace any of these sets, I could get any brand I wanted, at any size, and still keep my Apple TVs. In contrast, to equip my three TV locations with Apple televisions, I’d have to get rid of my current sets and likely spend over $3000 on Apple televisions. If any Apple television later goes belly up, and assuming I still didn’t want to go the add-on route, I’d have to replace it with a new Apple branded set or lose the Apple TV features. 

Further, when Apple significantly improves the capabilities of its television offerings, as it will inevitbaly do, it will be a lot easier and cheaper to get upgraded $99 Apple TV (3?) add-ons than to buy new Apple flat panel televisions.

The point is that, whatever Apple does, it can be done from an Apple TV add-on as well as from an actual television set. Probably better from the add-on. So why bother with the television? It’s a bad idea. There’s no need for an Apple television set, and it won’t sell.

Such was my rationale at the time.

Apple Television?

On the other hand…

And yet… and yet…

The more I thought about…the more I become convinced that an Apple branded television makes good sense after all. It’s not that the any of the above logic is wrong. It’s absolutely correct…and remains a huge obstacle for Apple to overcome. But it’s not an insurmountable obstacle. And focusing on just the obstacles overlooks all that Apple potentially stands to gain by coming out with its own television.

Some have argued that televisions are already simple devices and don’t need Apple to make them easier. I disagree. Today’s televisions are often quite complicated to operate — especially if you have numerous add-ons (as I do). For example, connected to one of my televisions is both an Apple TV and a cable box. A Blu-ray player and an AV receiver are also connected, but let’s ignore them for now.

To go from watching a program on cable to watching a movie on the Apple TV, as one example, requires switching inputs — which also means switching remotes. I bought a Logitech Harmony universal remote to bypass the need for multiple remotes. It’s good, but it’s far from ideal. Just setting the Harmony up, which requires connecting it to a PC, can be challenging, especially for technophobes. Fortunately, after you’re done, you only need to do it again when modifying your hardware. Even with a fully programmed Harmony, my wife (who never uses the Apple TV) prefers the remote that came with the cable box. This only complicates matters further. Often, using one remote leaves the TV in a state where the other remote doesn’t work as expected. And if I leave the television with Apple TV active, my wife has no idea how to get back to watching cable.

Even I find it a hassle after awhile. I almost never go to Apple TV just to briefly check something. Unless I know I intend to spend time with Apple TV features, I don’t bother to use it.

Multiple remotes, multiple inputs, devices that don’t always work as expected. This is not my definition of “ease-of-use.”

It would be simpler (and so much better) if, when I turned on my television, the Apple TV display would be there by default. But not just the Apple TV. All the cable stations I wanted to watch would be accessible as well. All from one simple remote with no input switching. Or maybe, via Siri, no remote buttons at all: I just speak into the remote and my request is carried out. One input, one remote, one device, almost no need for buttons.

Apple could accomplish something like this via an entirely Internet-based iCloud-managed television (similar to how VoIP telephones completely abandoned traditional telephone inputs). Say good-bye to the traditional TV tuner. No more need to surf through hundreds of stations you never watch, including dozens in languages you don’t even speak. [As an aside: There’s something positive to be said for having stations in your lineup you didn’t specifically request; it allows for the possibility of serendipitous discovery. But that’s a subject for another debate.]

An Apple television, like the current Apple TV, would likely run iOS.  Given that, the television could support an Apple TV App Store. This is where you would purchase apps for various programming choices (from HBO to NFL subscriptions). These apps could also allow for interactive features beyond anything you can now do with a television (as John Gruber suggests).

For all this to work at its simplest and most effective, you can’t do it from an add-on. Apple has to control the entire television. As Dan Frommer put it, in a column that makes similar arguments, Apple “wants its TV platform to be ‘input zero.’ That is, the first thing you see when you turn your TV on.”

An Apple television also fits better than an add-on with Apple’s typical marketing strategies. Tight vertical control has long been one of Apple’s greatest strengths. Apple is a soup-to-nuts company, selling both the hardware and software end of technology. Maybe that’s partly why Steve Jobs kept emphasizing that Apple TV was just a “hobby.” Just as Apple was never satisfied with the Motorola Rokr, a mobile phone that included iTunes/iPod support, Apple has probably never been entirely content to offer an Apple TV that only works if you connect it to a third-party television. Instead, Apple wants to create the iPhone of televisions. Apple wants its television to be so much better than what now exists that you’ll wait on line to purchase this new device — even if you already own a soon-to-be-obsolete ordinary television.

At least that’s my current assessment of Apple’s plans. If there is anything at all to the Apple television rumors (which have been further fueled by Steve Jobs’ comment in his biography that Apple has “cracked” the TV puzzle), this is what it’s all about. In the same way that the iPad became a huge success, despite the fact that people already owned smartphones and laptops with similar capabilities, an Apple flat-panel television could be a smash hit, opening up an entirely new market.

I’m not saying success is guaranteed. It’s not even a sure thing that Apple will ever come out with its own television. The potential obstacles and pitfalls remain. Serious ones — starting with what I covered at the top of this article. In addition, Apple has to get the television networks and Hollywood studios to sign on to the idea. If Apple can’t get them to agree to terms, the entire project may fall apart. But if Apple manages to get to the finish line, I am convinced the resulting product will be a winner. I already have my wallet ready.

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16 Comments Leave Your Own

Tiger

As a traditional Apple customer, I have to chime in. I think it’s horrible if the company expects to make any money. The time for this product is past. Flat screens are now so affordable that the market is bottoming out. I bought five flat screens for my house in 2009-10, not a single one which cost over $1,000. Considering the televisions they replaced were aged approximately 12-20 years old, its going to be a LONG time before Apple sees me, a loyalist, as a customer for a new Apple TV. And most everybody I know bought new TVs within the last 3 years as well.

With this one, I think they missed the boat.

Ted Landau

most everybody I know bought new TVs within the last 3 years as well.

Well, yes.. I made this very point in the article (see the paragraph starting “That?s just the beginning….”).

It’s definitely an obstacle. But I remain convinced that, with a special enough product, it’s one Apple could overcome. We’ll see.

Lee Dronick

For one thing, it?s likely that most of Apple?s potential customers already own a recently purchased TV

I am not one of those most, not yet. We are still using decades old CRT televisions. I know that they use more juice than the new flat panels, but replacing them is not on my priority list. However, if Apple were to come out with their own TV, and the price is competitive, I would be an early adopter.

brett_x

I’m not sure that the time has passed, Tiger, but you do have a point. But I also think that the current AppleTV can mitigate your concerns… and ultimately.. maybe that’s what has been “cracked”. Apple has their foot in the door with the current AppleTV while they take the time to line up content and partners for a pure Apple Television experience. Your old TV’s can be used with the $99 box. Maybe they can even be enhanced by a new Apple TV on the same network?

1stplacemacuser

What would be different?  How about a voice-activated remote where the user would speak into, like saying, “play the Chargers-Rams game” or “I want to see an action movie.  Show me what’s available.”  Or “Any comedy shows on right now?”  “Give me news.”  “European news.” “I mean european financial news.”  That’s the main game changer.

I know of no one who likes having a coffee table full of remotes.  One for the cable box, one for the DVD, one for the ancient VCR, one for the TV.  You turn on the TV with the TV remote.  Change the channel to the proper channel, or hit “other input” then go to the other remote, push those buttons.  Need to fix the color? Go back to the TV remote.  Loudness?  Is that TV remote or the DVD-player remote?  Distortion in the video?  Fix tracking on the VHS remote, or fix the tint using the TV remote?  AAARGH!

Lee Dronick

I know of no one who likes having a coffee table full of remotes.? One for the cable box, one for the DVD, one for the ancient VCR, one for the TV.

One of them breaks, or disappears never to be seen again. So you buy a universal remote which never seem to be 100% compatible and every so often looses its code. Not to mention those horrid things that come from with the cable box and have more buttons than the Pearly Kings and Queens.

1stplacemacuser

One of them breaks, or disappears never to be seen again. So you buy a universal remote which never seem to be 100% compatible and every so often looses its code. Not to mention those horrid things that come from with the cable box and have more buttons than the Pearly Kings and Queens.

You got it.  I have a plain flat-screen with a built-in DVD player.  It’s not connected to a cable box or anything, so all I can do is watch DVDs on it.  Even then, I’d prefer to have a simpler system.  One where I can say, “menu” and it’ll display the menu or at least reply, “sorry, you have the watch the full preview before you can activate the movie’s menu screen.”  Simplicity and directness plus cleaner lines.

It may even be possible to to avoid having a hand-held mic.  Just employ some self-canceling sound technology so that the sound from the speakers are self-canceled by the mic on the TV and it will only hear your voice.

webjprgm

My opinion is that they should sell an Apple flatscreen panel with nothing but a single input from the AppleTV, and an updated AppleTV that manages the remote, inputs and outputs, and whole experience. 

Separating the two would solve a couple problems.  First, people with existing TVs could plug them into the AppleTV then never change input/channel again (if there’s a way to control on/off and volume on the TV, then you could put your old remotes away forever too.).  Second, it fixes the upgrade cycle discrepancy, where a customer can buy an Apple display every 10 years but buy an AppleTV box every 3 years.

It just occurred to me, though, that even building the whole TV doesn’t solve all problems.  For anyone with a satellite speaker system, there’s usually an external box controlling that, and thus separate volume controls for it. (E.g. my dad runs audio out from the TV through the old DVD player which has satellite speakers, so volume is on the DVD player remote.  A nicer system might use an amp instead for the same purpose.)

Shai

I think the Apple TV could be revolutionary, especially if they integrate Siri. Look at the sales of the iPhone 4S even from those who had/have an iPhone already. Same hold true for the iPad2. People are consumers and hungry ones at that. Given the new technologically advanced devices - i.e.: 3D TV, etc. they replace their devices at a rate much faster than the previous generations. No one I know hold on to relics, and by that I mean any technology devices more than 3 years - at best. Apple can have another landslide win, IF they follow the vision of their previous inventions that Steve Jobs so intricately put in place.

Terrin

That argument can be said of any product Apple has been successful with. PC makers like Dell and HP have been making commodity products each killing each other by cutting cost. PC manufacturers growth has, however, slowed. Apple’s Mac sales growth is outpacing the market significantly even though it maintains a healthy margin for profits.

When Apple entered the phone market, people argued there are too many established players offering inexpensive products so Apple couldn’t possibly compete. Yet, Apple succeeded and then some.

One of Apple’s defectors left Apple and started a thermostat company, bringing to market an expensive thermostat called the Nest. The companies site says they have been swamped with orders, and now there is a big back log. Thermostats were also a saturated market.

People will pay for innovation. I have a great Sharp TV that I just bought. If Apple came out with a giant iPad like TV, I would buy another TV. 

More importantly, the TV market is slowly changing with so called smart TVs. Some TVs have so called smart apps that allow you to surf the web, check email, etc. These TVs might make traditional computers like the Mac obsolete some day. Apple needs a presence there.

 

The time for this product is past. Flat screens are now so affordable that the market is bottoming out.

Dorje Sylas

I’ve long been saying an actual TV TV is hogwash, I recently put my brain to figuring out if it could actually be done in a way that fundamentally unifies the experience. My answer… yes, it could be done. The key to me is putting the AppleTV in charge of the universal remote. It can store far more codes and even get feedback based on image recognition technologies Apple already has. (See FaceTime Greenscreen and iPhoto faces)

I also can’t see the Jobs design requirements putting lots of extra ports on the back. Instead add devices on a Thunderbolt line with peripheral adapters. Need another HDMI port? Buy another Apple brand adapter and add it to the end of your current string hosting your VCR, BluRay, DVR, Cablebox.

1stplacemacuser

I’ve never been a big television watcher.  I stopped watching TV since going to college.  That said, when I was a frequent TV watcher while in high school, we had 4 VHF stations and maybe 3 UHF stations.  No remote and eventually got a VCR to plug into the TV.

That said, it wasn’t too difficult to walk up to the TV and flip the dial.

Now, with almost all content coming from cable and a plethora of options, it’s extremely difficult to traverse the maze of hundreds of stations, none of which are organized in any reasonable order (like, perhaps channels 2 - 20 are all news, 21 - 40 are all sports, 41 - 60 are all feature-length movies, etc) it makes sense to have a system where the desires of the viewer can be just expressed, orally or in written text (i.e., keyboard entry).  If the legacy of Jobs is to make this happen, I still won’t be watching TV, but when I’m at a friend’s or family’s home, I can at least navigate to the football game of interest or the latest news.

BTW, about 20+ years ago, I saw a demo of picture in a picture from a Bang & Olufsen TV.  I thought that was pretty cool.  But still, that’s a hack compared to some direct input of what the viewer wants to watch.

diverreb

No offense, but I wouldn’t consider spending $1,000.00 because it’s “such a hassle” to use two remotes and make a switch of inputs.  Seriously?

Next I can just see me yelling at my TV every five minutes to switch channels so I don’t have to watch commercials while my wife is trying to fall asleep or is already sleeping….  The ensuing divorce would be very costly, in addition to the $1,000.00 I just spent for the new TV.

Then having to go online and pre-reserve my TV so I could drive another hour each way after already doing so the day before only to be told by sales person… we have them in stock, but you can’t buy one….  Go home, pre-order it online, and come back tomorrow to pick it up!  Really?

Anyway, I agree with your earlier assessment…. Unless it does a heck of a lot more than just combine Apple TV into a flat screen, it will join the ranks of The Newton, The Cube, and to a lesser degree, The Mini & Air.

iJack

Couples, hell even whole families, fight over the remote.
Can you imagine the circus of them fighting over Siri?

(BTW, my comment was not meant to be negative about the possibility of an Apple TV TV.  I would welcome it.)

Lee Dronick

Couples, hell even whole families, fight over the remote.
Can you imagine the circus of them fighting over Siri?

I would be an Admin user, the rest of the family would be Standard users, I could override them smile

iJack

I could override them smile

That wouldn’t stop my young teenage daughters from squealing, “No, Siri!  Listen to me!

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