Apple's Approach to Advanced TV Shifts Gears - Again

Apple has gone through several stages in its approach to advancing the state of the art in TV viewing. The latest one is leveraging the quickly splintering industry as content providers seek to work, more and more, directly with customers.


Back when we first heard Apple CEO Tim Cook talk about how TV viewing seemed stuck back in the 1970s and said that it's a subject "we [Apple] have great interest in," there has been an ongoing conversation about how Apple would express that interest. After all, we are accustomed to Apple making dramatic moves, and we like to read things in to what Mr. Cook says.

One way for Apple to go, discussed in the past, would be to capture— thanks to its vast wealth—a significant amount of content and present the user interface so beautifully that cable/satellite would seem archaic. The content providers resisted. It flopped.

Another avenue would be to make the coolest large screen TV, integrated with Apple TV guts, certainly 4K, perhaps curved, that's so beautiful, Apple could carve enough of the industry to make a profit. Alas, 4K is coming along too slowly to jump on that bandwagon. It's more clear now that's not an Applesque solution.

Of course, there were the 2014 talks with Time Warner to assist them with a next generation set-top-box. That got put on hold when Comcast sought to acquire Time Warner. (That's all over now.)

A third approach was to stick with the Apple TV set-top-box concept and offer a 25 channel subscription program. However, as we've seen, content holders are very fussy about just how their products are distributed. Some details remain to be worked out, such as advertising.

And last, but not least, Apple has explored the idea of being a direct conduit, via OTT, to the customer in a way that adds incremental revenue and expands, not contracts, the potential audience. The recent introduction of HBO Now to the Apple TV is an example of that.

No Master Plan

Watching the Charlie Rose interview again, linked above, leads me to believe that Apple has been in a much more exploratory mode than many observers, including me, might have believed. It seems there was no master plan to begin with because the content holders and TV makers have such a grip on the industry that Apple hasn't had an obvious technical opportunity to intervene to its great advantage.

Things are changing rapidly now in the TV industry. Increased Internet speeds to the home, the slow but eventual emergence of 4K, new kinds of content bundles, independent programming by Netflix (as a new thing) and HBO (a resurgent thing), mobile outlets for content, new kinds of business arrangements, like Hulu on cable, better availability of sports on the Internet, and last but not least, a cord-cutter mentality (if not a wide or dominant phenomenon), have all made it difficult for one company, like Apple, to step in and make a huge splash.

I believe that Apple is in a watchful state more than ever now. We won't be seing any dramatic moves. Instead, I see Apple exploiting trends where it can to benefit the customer. If minor upgrades to its Apple TV hardware are required, we'll get that too.

The opportunity for a dramatic play hasn't been there and isn't looking to come along any time soon. This is why Tim Cook, with his remarkable inner sense of what Apple can and should so, his patience and his timing, is the perfect Apple CEO right now.