Here We Go Again: Is Apple Readying a Connected TV?

October 26th, 2011

It’s been pretty clear that Apple’s hobby, the Apple TV, is just a test bed to experiment with new methods of cracking the set top box dilemma. The major impediment to making it work is the fact that the cable and satellite providers already give you a set top box, often with a built-in DVD, free or with a modest monthly payment. How do you compete with that?

So the Apple TV, and similar devices from Roku and the few licensees of Google’s failed Google TV initiative, are consigned to second-rate status. There’s also some level of duplication of services, meaning you can get Netflix streaming, YouTube and other features on a Blu-ray player, or even one of those new-fangled “connected” TVs. Having another device, at an extra cost, seems less relevant.

Apple TV separates itself from the pack by offering integration with iTunes and, now, iCloud. Nobody else can match that, although there are competing services being offered or readied by the likes of Amazon and Google.

Where to go from there is a huge question mark. According to the best-selling authorized biography of Steve Jobs, written by Walter Isaacson, the secret to making Apple TV was “cracked” by Jobs shortly before he died. Thus begins a new round of speculation as to what that solution might be.

The larger portion of that speculation has it that Apple will, at long last, build their own connected TV, using Siri voice recognition and iCloud to separate itself from the pack. So, instead of navigating through sometimes arcane menus to record a TV show, you’ll simply announce that you want Siri to set a timer, say, for the remainder of the season for Fox TV’s “Fringe.” Of course that assumes the low-rated cult show is going to have much of a season, though there’s always hope.

But seriously: While I assume such a TV would have the usual round of HDMI ports for you to connect a cable or satellite set top box (yes, one of those!), a Blu-ray player, and a gaming console, it would seem that Apple is striving to establish their own subscription system, although that would require striking deals with the content providers. Would live TV be a part of it, or will Apple still expect you to use existing services, or a TV antenna, to fill that need?

Now other than having an elegant interface and voice recognition, just how does Apple differentiate itself from all those commodity TVs? The rumors have it that Apple is looking to use LCD panels, which may be OK, although purists will tell you that plasma delivers richer blacks, cleaner pictures for action scenes, not to mention a virtually unlimited viewing angle. Would Apple strive to solve the limitations of LCD, or will they go plasma?

But that’s a minor part of the equation. From there, what about other critical facets of the TV viewing experience, such a delivering great sound? Your average TV delivers merely adequate audio, but nothing that will truly immerse you in a theater-like experience while watching an action film with flashy and noisy special effects.

Now Bose has a possible solution, the $5,349 VideoWave, justifying the high price by offering a sophisticated built-in home theater audio system, along with a feature called ADAPTIQ, which promises to tailor the audio to your listening environment. Otherwise, the specifications seem pedestrian. The set has a 46-inch LCD display, four HDMI inputs (three rear, one front), and a universal remote (one that can control other gadgets). The promotional information at Bose’s site doesn’t mention a thing about apps or direct access to streaming services. You still need your set top box, Apple TV, and so forth and so on.

So it seems that Bose is asking you to pay an over $4,000 premium for better sound, which seems rather extreme, even though the sonics are said to be superior to any other TV on the market. But it’s clear you can save lots of money if you are willing to put up with a separate audio system, even if you pick a system from Bose’s own catalog.

I’m reaching here. I just need to know how, other than providing their own content delivery service and a prettier interface, Apple can make a difference.

Now the latest published reports have it that Apple software VP Jeffrey Robbin, someone I know from the 1990s when he was instrumental in coding such great apps as Conflict Catcher and SoundJam (acquired by Apple to form the basis of iTunes), is shepherding development of the software for Apple’s new TV. Now Robbin is surely up to the task, since he was also one of the creators of the iPod.

I have little doubt that Apple is actively testing prototype TVs in their test labs, just as I’m sure there are loads of products that are in various stages of development. But I also think it’s a reach to assume that, because Steve Jobs discovered the secret of succeeding in the living room, that a TV set is necessarily that secret. What can Apple offer when it comes to built-in features that cannot be delivered in a refreshed version of today’s Apple TV, perhaps with the A5 processor for true 1080p decoding, Siri integration, and perhaps extra content?

Of course, I don’t pretend to know what sort of gear Apple might be considering, but I’m still skeptical about all this. On the other hand, if Apple does build a TV set, and avoids the temptation of a sky-high price, I’d be seriously tempted to consider buying one.

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11 Responses to “Here We Go Again: Is Apple Readying a Connected TV?”

  1. dfs says:

    One difference between an Apple-branded t. v. and other products might turn out to be crucial. When it comes to computers and the other devices Apple currently sells, most consumers are accustomed to (or at least resigned to) the idea of a three-year life cycle or thereabouts, and so can accept Apple’s policy of relatively rapid obsolence. But consumers have a very different attitude towards television sets, they are accustomed to a considerably longer lifespan for these. To make an Apple tv fly, Apple will have to reeducate consumers and induce them to accept an Apple-normed lifespan — or reeducate itself. Incidentally, I have often thought that Bose products are a lot like designer jeans. They’re wildly overpriced and you pay a lot more for the label than you do for the intrinsic value of the product.

  2. Jeff says:

    I just don’t see this happening. I work for a large consumer electronics company that stopped designing and manufacturing their own TV sets because the profit margin is slim to non-existent. We prefer instead to contract with one of the handful of companies worldwide that manufactures flat screen panels to build a set according to our minimal specifications and put our name on it – simply to keep the brand alive in the marketplace.

    At the consumer level, there really isn’t a lot of difference between sets other then the bells and whistles and it’s only when you start to go high-end that you start to find true differences, but by then you’ve priced out 99% of the market. You can see a similar pattern with Apple’s monitors, which to my understanding have never been high sellers.

    Frankly, I’m sick of these “analysts” projecting their wishes on Agile and collecting a paycheck without even a basic understanding of the market they’re advocating to push Apple into.

  3. Shock Me says:

    While I would be overjoyed to own an Apple created TV, I would be satisfied with the addition of iPhone sensors, a dedicated game controller and remote, Siri, FaceTime, something Kinect-like and an iOS SDK for any upcoming AppleTV3. The controller could come in two versions:

    A controller that incorporates hardware button and sticks and leaves room for an iPhone/iPod touch surface

    A controller with all the same sensors built-in that includes control buttons or some other control scheme that can be bundled with the head unit.

    Such a device would be great for Movies, TV programs both live and pre-recorded, and for new and existing iOS games.

    • Shameer M. says:

      @Shock Me, Why don’t you just get an Xbox 360. It’ll pretty much almost all of what you’re suggesting.

      • Shock Me says:

        @Shameer M., Yes, I have one of those and a PS3 as well. I just want one that goes with my iPhone. I could get a Lumia W7 phone but the Apple TV is less expensive to purchase and the games cost less. At $60 a game XBox is too much commitment. Gears of War and Halo are awesome, I just don’t have the time for them that I used to.

        Sony’s Expria Play is another option. But I already have lots of iOS software and games. Many of those benefit from larger screen. I’d like the convenience of the Apple TV interface to be the first thing I see instead of all the remotes and input switching.

        The Kinect is cool though even at low rez.

  4. Drew Costen says:

    Does it matter if Apple makes much of a profit, if any, on a TV though? The profit could come from the iTunes content people watch on the TV. Hell, Apple could sell it at a loss and still make a profit off the whole thing through iTunes subscriptions or something.

    • @Drew Costen, That’s not how Apple works. They do not make large profits on the content. It’s all to serve the hardware, from which they derive high margins. Other companies have tried the reverse, relying on the content to feed the deficit caused by selling hardware at lower prices, and it works with varying degrees of success.

      As you’ll see in Amazon’s financials, they are taking a beating on the Kindle Fire, hoping they’ll make it up with sales of ebooks and other products.


      • Drew Costen says:

        @Gene Steinberg, True. I’m just not sure how they could make their standard model work with televisions. Even before the iPhone, most people I hung out with bought a new cell phone every couple years, but I don’t know anyone who buys a new TV more often than once a decade.

        One thing I’m pretty sure we can count on is that if they do launch a television set it’ll be something quite different from the traditional model of TV and should be very interesting. Maybe even interesting enough to make me give in and actually buy a TV (something I don’t want to own). Makes me hope they don’t for that reason alone. 😉

        • Shameer M. says:

          @Drew Costen, One of the keys to making money off of TV is advertising. Remember Apple still has their iAd division. They could use this division to provide the ad platform for TV content providers that serve content on iOS devices.

          Even though iAd hasn’t taken off it’s far from being a total failure.

  5. Jim says:

    I just don’t see Apple manufacturing their own TVs unless, like Steve claimed, he cracked the code: which I think is to provide a full and compelling alternative to cable. My monthly nut to cable (of course it includes TV, internet and phone) is about $150, and I’m paying for a lot of content that I never view. Cable providers don’t provide ala carte menus, but that’s what might motivate me to move to an Apple solution. Here’s what Apple would need to provide:

    — Compelling user interface: voice and other simple navigation options (this, Apple can deliver, I’m sure). It would, of course, include everything that Apple TV provides today.

    — Content: This is probably the hardest nut to crack; if you can’t give me everything on-demand (live sports, premium channels like HBO, network programming, etc.), then I still have to maintain my cable system, at least partially, and that sours the deal significantly. Of course, with $100 billion, they could buy up a lot of content providers and the content they own.

    — The pipes: could Apple possibly be planning a full end-around the cable companies by partnering with the telephone companies that currently sell their iPhones and iPads? How much additional bandwidth would they need to serve on-demand, even live, hi-def content to millions of subscribers?

    — Hardware: One size does not fit all. Apple would have to offer a range of screen sizes, all at 1080P.

    — One more thing: Not sure what, but something delightful…content I can’t get anywhere else, maybe; games; full web connectivity.

    The possibilities are, to say the least, intriguing.

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