It's a challenge, from the outside, to figure out just what Apple wants. For example, just like the original iPhone deal with AT&T, Apple appears to want to leverage off the Comcast network and then create its own relationship with the customer. AT&T benefitted from that, but Comcast, despite some unhappy customers, is not that desperate. That puts Apple back at square one.
Apple knows how to do certain things very well. It knows how to build modern, low-power, consumer products with great industrial design. It knows how to build beautiful, intuitive user interfaces and create amazing user experiences. Often, Apple buys small, advanced technology companies for perhaps several hundred million dollars, at most, and usually much less in order to acquire great technology and talented people.
What Apple isn't so good at is buying large companies that would conflict with Apple's special culture. Also, Apple has demonstrated a reluctance to get into the business of building and managing a nation-wide communications network. Not only is it arduous, expensive and low profit in itself, but it doesn't fit well with Apple as a global supplier of consumer goods. But that was then.
What Does Apple Have to Offer?
Apple, in my opinion, would like to sell great TV hardware to customers, but it's been blocked at every turn because it isn't vertically integrated in the TV market place. Comcast, on the other hand, has all the bits and pieces. It has Cable Labs for R&D. It's building a next generation home platform called X1 "that combines a vast library of traditional TV and OnDemand programming with additional content and features." It has a vast TCP/IP communications network that's making huge strides with IPv6. If the acquisition of Time Warner is approved, the Washington Post notes:
The combined company would have 33 million cable subscribers and nearly as many broadband users, giving it enormous power in negotiations with networks over licensing fees and in determining what shows reach consumers on mobile devices, laptops and television sets.
So what does Comcast need from Apple? A company that's achieved a distinction for taking possession of the of the customer experience and turning an expensive communications infrastructure into a simple data pipe, in inglorious servitude.
Back in 2011, I proposed ("The Latest Blow to Apple’s TV Venture") that one path for Apple would be to buy Time Warner, seize control of a fairly large but digestible network and install its own vision of the next generation TV experience.
Not only would Apple have been in a position to procure and then offer a wide range of TV content, but it would have provided a vehicle for Apple to get its feet wet with and develop new home TV technology. As I recall, Robert Cringely concurred — possibly others as well. The anti-trust scrutiny would probably have been less than Comcast's offer today.
It seems to me that that acquisition by Apple would have faced severe challenges, presented grave risks, but also provided huge payoffs. Apple would have had the most advanced TV network in the U.S., and would have had customers swooning over its imaginative, advanced TV technology and legendary customer service. The rude and rough experience of operating such a network would have elevated Apple's networking, cloud, and enterprise offerings to a much higher level. But success would not have been safe and certain, and so Apple shied away.
Today, Apple is still sitting back. The Apple TV has good content, but Apple has been denied the sweeping content deals it has sought to make a next generation TV system compelling enough that tens of millions would cut the cord. (That's not happening.) As I explained in my own article linked further above, it's still a supplemental service that has, ironically, the best Netflix experience. Comcast is probably going to deny Apple the opportunity to turn it into a dumb pipe, servicing Apple's glorious ambitions with cool consumer TV goods.
Just what does Apple want? And what is Apple willing to do to get there?