No doubt loads of Apple critics — and more than a few competitors — were delighted to see Apple begin to hit financial and sales headwinds in the December quarter. Sales of iPhones hit record levels, but just barely. Mac sales were slightly down, iPad sales were way down. Record numbers of the Apple Watch and the Apple TV were reportedly sold, but nobody knows how many outside of Apple and its accountants I gather, but many will guess.
For the current quarter, iPhone sales are expected to decline somewhat, so it may be assumed it’s all over for Apple, as if anyone really believes any large company can be done in by one less-than-stellar quarter. And don’t forget that Samsung continues to sell Galaxy smartphones, and sales are way off pace; most of their sales involve cheap stuff, the things Apple won’t build. But does anyone honestly believe Samsung is about to go kaput?
Besides, it wouldn’t be the first time Apple suffered from lower sales, and the real question is how long that trend might continue. Will a revitalized iPhone 7 change things, or has the smartphone market, outside of developing countries, mostly hit the saturation point with sales ultimately settling on lower numbers? It would still keep Apple immensely profitable, but there will be some level of clamoring for another hit product. A huge hit!
An Apple Car? Perhaps it might happen some years from now, but few expect such a thing, when and if it happens, to be an instant sensation. The car market is already overloaded, particularly for volume models, although there is no doubt space for another smaller manufacturer in the spirit of Tesla. How far Apple can go with a motor vehicle is something even the crystal balls won’t reveal.
In any case, on this weekend’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we covered Apple’s financials for their fiscal first quarter, where they reported record sales and revenue, but just barely. For this quarter, they are projecting lower sales. Just what headwinds is Apple facing, and can they resume the pace of torrid sales growth? Were Apple’s 2015 product introductions, especially the Apple Watch and fourth-generation Apple TV, not compelling enough? We also covered a proposal from the FCC to open up the cable set-top box market, so you can pick the devices you want to watch programing instead of being forced to buy or rent theirs. If the proposal is approved, and it will be considered on February 18 of this year, would that open up new markets for Apple, Google, Samsung and other companies?
On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: The 2016 IUFOC features such luminaries as Jacques Vallee, Nick Pope, Nick Redfern, Douglas Trumball, and Chris Rutkowski. That’s a lot of firepower for one UFO convention. Discussing the event, the state of UFO research and other hot topics, is Alejandro Rojas, from convention sponsors OpenMinds.tv, He’ll also talk about the situation at MUFON and what he might do in the unlikely event he became director of that organization. Alejandro is also host for Open Minds UFO Radio, and emcee for the International UFO Congress. He is also a blogger for the Huffington Post.
Apple is interested in the living room. Apple wants to conquer the living room. That appears obvious from what Tim Cook has said on the subject. As soon as Apple expresses interest in anything, you know that loads of money are being poured into development for — well, something or other. But what that something might be has been the subject of plenty of guessing, and only one product has been released, at least so far.
When the late Steve Jobs boasted of having cracked the secret of the best TV interface ever, an Apple “Smart” TV set was widely expected, and expected. But it never arrived despite the rumors of prototypes and possible configurations. Eventually stories appeared that Apple decided to give it all up. All this about something whose existence had never been confirmed in the first place.
So just how was Apple planning to conquer the living room? Just another Apple TV? Well, that may have seemed the case in light of the release of the fourth generation model last fall. But in large part, Apple seemed to be playing mostly catch up with a more expensive product. So there were apps, and there was voice command, courtesy of Siri. But that wasn’t especially unique. What’s more, two other streamers, the Amazon Instant Video and Roku 4, supported 4K video. But not Apple.
Now I suppose the new Apple TV might have been considered the long-rumored effort to dominate the living room, but the user interface wasn’t that dissimilar from the one on the previous Apple TVs. So what advantages did it offer anyway?
Well, you do have several thousand third party apps, which is, I suppose, an improvement if any of those apps are useful and enhance your viewing experience. But if your use of an Apple TV means just watching Netflix, or content from iTunes, was there really that much of an advantage? I suppose if you want to use several services, the search tool might provide an easier way to navigate content sources — at least those that support search — but otherwise not so much.
Having thousands of apps may be an advantage if a reasonable number interest you, but it’s not exclusive to Apple. Roku promises 2,500 channels and some simple games. The Roku 4, at $129.99, also delivers 4K, but not the enhanced Ultra HD Premium features, and voice search. So where’s the Apple advantage?
Well, if you want content from iTunes, or some half-decent games mostly derived from the iOS App Store — in other words you’re invested in the Apple ecosystem — the new Apple TV would provide a superior experience. But the Roku interface is also pretty decent. Most of the movies you can rent or buy from iTunes are also available from any of several providers. If you want Amazon Instant Video — free with your Amazon Prime membership — you can get it on an Amazon or Roku box, but not on an Apple TV. At least not yet.
The key shortcoming of current streaming set-top boxes persists on the Apple TV, which is managing loads of channels and loads of different services and interfaces, in one place. It’s only partly resolved with a comprehensive search tool, but it doesn’t solve the problem of a too-complected experience.
At least when you have 300 channels on your cable or satellite box, they are all available with one user interface. While that interface may not be so great, it’s mostly usable on the major set-top boxes from Comcast, Cox, DirecTV or Dish Network and the others. They all offer different ways to fast forward through ads. Disk even offers the controversial Hopper, which promises to do it automatically on broadcast stations, more or less.
But wait a minute! Dish’s Autohop feature requires that you wait four hours before you watch the shows. If you want to catch something any quicker, your 43 minutes of uninterrupted viewing expands to the usual 60 minutes with all spots intact. So if you’re impatient, put up with the situation or use fast forward.
In any case, none of this solves the problem of 300 channels with nothing to watch, or a confusing way to manage multiple content appliances. Indeed the latter represents a huge shortcoming with the current living room scheme. If you just want to watch local TV, and perhaps the few streaming services that are included with today’s “Smart” TV sets, such as Amazon, Hulu and Netflix, it’s probably not so big a deal. You only have to manage a handful of interfaces on a single product.
As soon as you add another TV gadget, such as a Blu-ray player, a gaming console, a streamer, and perhaps a surround sound system — even a basic sound bar — things can get mighty complicated real fast. You might find yourself having to confront the varying setups of multiple remote controls to go from one device to the other. Even where there are “unlimited” features in a remote that manage several gadgets, just aiming them correctly so they hit the receivers on all of the products you want to turn on, off or control, may be hit or miss.
I know that it takes a little practice and patience on my Logitech Harmony Remote. The Cox remote, which supports several devices, more or less (usually less), is awkward to use, especially when you want to fast forward through the ads. Sure, the function is there, but poorly implemented and poorly placed, evidently to discourage its use perhaps?
The entire experience calls for a real solution, not just another collection of disparate channels and features that leave you with what is essentially the status quo.
I haven’t begun to consider all the possibilities; just that ones with which I deal from day to day. Some tech company out there may come up with a workable solution. I had hoped that company will be Apple, and maybe it will be. Maybe there is a fifth-generation Apple TV in the works that pays more than lip service to integrating different volume and other control functions, and delivers it all with the interface to die for.
With full 4K support, which includes the new Ultra HD Premium scheme.
But it’s not here yet. I am interested in reviewing the Apple TV, and I’m happy to be proven wrong. But as a potential buyer, I’d be skeptical. I would wonder what it offers me, or most other TV viewers. My TV diet, beyond the cable box, is Netflix and a rare iTunes rental. Those needs are adequately served by a Cox set-top box and my third-generation Apple TV.
Now maybe the FCC’s plan to open up the set-top box market in the U.S., to allow you to buy a third-party appliance rather than rely on the one from the cable/satellite provider, or the clumsy cable card scheme, will offer a new opportunity for Apple. Maybe.
For now, the ball is in Apple’s court to deliver a genuine solution.
THE FINAL WORD
The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.
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