An Apple Television Can Be a Game Changer

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.