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

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.