Here We Go Again: The Apple Connected TV

January 5th, 2012

There is a report this week, one getting loads of coverage, that Apple’s genius product designer, Sir Jonathan Ive, has a 50-inch Apple TV in his design studio. If true, it might grant credibility to the growing expectations that Apple has such a product in our future that will go on sale some time later this year.

But you have to wonder from where this story originated, and it appears to be a statement attributed to someone who may have at one time worked at Apple. At the same time, if true, it may not mean a thing. Apple typically has development products in prototype form that are never released to the public, and this TV set may be one of those products. It doesn’t mean that you can expect to buy a production version at your nearby Apple Store this year or any year.

All this chatter is clearly the result of that famous reference in the authorized Steve Jobs biography, from Walter Isaacson, that Jobs announced proudly that he had “cracked” the code, as it were, towards succeeding in the TV space. I assume the statement is true, just as I assume Jobs knew the quote would be published and reprinted worldwide. It may very well be that it was made deliberately to cause consternation among TV makers. Just what was Jobs talking about, and how soon would that product appear?

At the same time, any major product introduction from Apple, even in the future, will likely cast a cloud upon the Consumer Electronics Show, which occurs in Las Vegas next week. In recent years, Apple has been good about upstaging the event with their own announcements. Last year, it was news about the impending introduction of a Verizon Wireless version of the iPhone, but it was followed with plenty of speculation about the form and features of the next great iPad.

The rest of the tech industry just can’t catch a break.

As to the alleged Apple connected TV, the media is already designing the product for Apple. It would have Siri voice recognition, and be available in the usual sizes, such as 42 inches, and, if the story about that TV in Sir Jonathan’s studio is true, 50-inches. But that’s nothing special. These are among the sizes in which a flat panel TV is typically offered. What may be true is that Apple would pick two or three popular sizes, and that’s it. You won’t find a 32-inch version. That would be too close to the iMac anyway.

But those sizes aren’t a given. Other reports do mention 32-inch and 37-inch versions, but that seems underwhelming. Sizes ranging from 40 inches to 55 inches seem more sensible.

In addition to Siri, you should expect something akin to today’s Apple TV set top box on steroids, I suppose. It would have an A5 or better processor, support for AirPlay and, of course iCloud. Aside from Siri, though, that would seem to be little more than taking today’s Apple TV and placing it inside a real TV.

What about the content?

OK, there’s the problem, and there can be several solutions. But first and foremost, I do not believe Apple will deliver a TV set that’s deficient in any of the connection choices you expect. There will be a built-in over-the-air tuner, and several HDMI slots for whatever programming you want. You will be able to connect a cable or satellite TV adapter, a gaming console, a Blu-ray player, and even a Google TV gadget if that’s what you want. It wouldn’t make any sense for Apple to skip these essentials, as much as they’d want you to entice you to get your content from them. Otherwise, the set’s sales potential would be sharply reduced. And I won’t speculate about 3D, which still remains underwhelming, unless Apple develops a credible solution that doesn’t require those dreadful glasses.

However, Apple is supposedly working with the entertainment companies to give you their own unique iTunes-derived subscription experience. It may well be that this, in addition to Siri, would be Apple’s ace-in-the-hole, but whether it can truly happen is another issue entirely. For Apple to offer a compelling alternative, they’d have to make deals with all the major networks, and, perhaps, local stations, assuming all the content is going to be streamed.

The other question is the cost of streaming. If you are downloading mostly high definition content for eight to 12 hours a day, and these are fairly average figures for TV watchers, there will come a point where your ISP is going to protest. Faced with the loss of cable TV customers, broadband providers might just raise prices for potential bandwidth abusers. Suddenly what you save in dropping cable won’t be such a savings anymore.

Or maybe, just maybe, Apple will filter your cable or satellite connection, allowing for Siri control and perhaps display of a TV schedule in a customized iOS interface. That might require agreements with these companies, but seeing they’d get more customers, it doesn’t seem as if it would be a problem, right? But they also sell a service with supposedly unique features, so that might not be feasible. Or maybe it’ll just be Siri and you’ll have to endure the same lame programming interfaces they offer now.

If and when an Apple connected TV arrives, I’ll be very curious and, if I have the spare cash, tempted to buy one. But that nagging feeling of skepticism about the whole thing won’t go away.

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9 Responses to “Here We Go Again: The Apple Connected TV”

  1. Jim C. says:

    Whatever it is, it has to be a true paradigm shift, or what’s the point? Apple’s model has always been to design and sell exceptional hardware enhanced by unique software. I have no doubt they can do that with an Apple TV. But content is king in the TV domain. If Apple could make a delivery system that is compelling to users and at least as profitable, if not more so, for content owners as what they are getting from cable providers, then the new Apple TV could be a winner. Like you, however, I remain skeptical.

  2. AlfieJr says:

    agree with a lot of this article and its insights. but the big picture is:

    like it or not, cable works good for (tech) dummies. which is well over 50% of everyone. the cable guy gets it working for you, the DVR is built into the same box if you want it, and all you have to do is push a few buttons to get a lot of stuff to watch. some of it – enough – is really good or useful whatever your preferences, even if most is junk. you’re paying just $2 or $3 a day for it. plus on-demand or premium channels for specific additional things you want. the entire medico industry is integrated with it for content delivery.

    in other words, cable ain’t broke. it don’t need fixing. we all wish it were cheaper and had more of our favorite stuff, whatever it is. but you know, that is largely just whining. if all you need is news, sports, and network shows, cut the cable and get a cheap HD OTA antenna and a cheap DVR and cut your cost to pennies a day. but cable is here to stay.

    Apple, or anyone, can’t “disrupt” this actually quite good media delivery setup. the TV makers and cablecos themselves will continually improve on its UI, if that is a weak spot, including motion/voice controls to the extent they prove really desirable in actual widespread use (i’m not sure they will become as popular as this article and various other pundits hype). and the cablecos will keep adding more “smart” web services to their set top box, copying whatever proves to be popular on other platforms. that includes all the “social” stuff this article talks about as the next big thing (i’m not so sure people want to do social on TV’e either). they will always have one huge advantage: they own the bandwidth pipe you need to get anything from anyone.

    what Apple can do that the cablecos cannot is integrate a TV into your Apple ecosystem, as this article describes. AirPlay/Screen Mirroring actually do this today with Apple TV and your iOS device, but right now only early adopters are using it very much and only and handful of apps take full advantage of its potential (check out the Bloomberg iPad app). but there are plenty of medico apps now – the networks, etc. – and by the end of this year they likely will all be available and AirPlay ready.

    so what Apple needs to do is package what it already has to offer much better. The Apple TV UI is old school cursor mover, that has to go totally, replaced with a touchscreen UI. ditch the IR remote. and the iOS Remote app is crude too, it needs a complete makeover in parallel with that. most of all, consumers need to be able to add suites of “free” media content apps, or even have them pre-loaded, for their iOS devices. so right out of the box one screen has all the popular network apps and users don’t have to search for them individually. and finally, choosing between cable/OTA channels, your DVR, and iOS app “channels” needs to all be presented on a single UI screen – making them all equal in ease and immediacy of access. no more tedious input switching.

    all Apple TV really needs is an HDMI input to integrate your cable source into its UI (adding Slingbox-like streaming of that input from the Apple TV to other Apple hardware would be very smart too). but if Apple really wants to sell its own big screen HDTV’s, it should bundle a pre-loaded iPod touch with all those free media apps as their remote control.

    the trick for Apple is not to defeat the cablecos, as many seem to hope. the trick is to integrate and augment cable into Apple’s own ecosystem. similar to MS old “embrace and extend” strategy.

  3. Jim C. says:

    AlfieJr makes many good points, but I don’t agree that cable “works well” for the money I’m paying (>$100/month). For that, I get to watch the shows I want to watch, yes. But, for every one show I watch, there are 500 I don’t watch but am still paying for. I keep cable, though, because what’s my alternative? If Apple could provide a way to watch all the shows I want to watch, painlessly, for less than $100/month, I’d have no compunction dropping cable. In fact, anecdotally, I hear a lot of complaints about cable providers. They are not endearing themselves to their customers. So, clearly, there’s a business opportunity to lure customers away from cable with the right solution, whatever that may be. It will be interesting to see what Apple comes up with.

  4. Kaleberg says:

    I can’t imagine why Apple would want to sell a television set. There is no money in selling television sets. To be honest, I can barely imagine why anyone would want to sell television sets in this day and age.

    The near future Apple TV will be the size of a sugar cube and get plugged into an HDMI port. Every household will have an iPad, iPhone, iPod or some variant. Those are the remote controls of the future. In any case, the actual video signal will be selected, paid for and presented by an application. That application can work with Siri, the touchscreen or use the accelerometer and/or camera and/or compass if that makes sense. It’s just software. Apple will initially provide a largely closed API, with a few bones for outsiders, but in a year or two it will allow for widespread innovation.

    The future of television is a software and rights management problem more than a hardware problem, and solving that problem is where the money is.

    P.S. There’s a whole generation that is watching less and less television. It hasn’t shown up on the charts yet, but I’m surprised by the young people I meet who watch very little, but watch computer screens more.

  5. Karl says:

    What if you simply connect the COAX cable to an Apple TV and allow cable providers to create apps that replaces their cable boxes. They already have apps on iOS devices. Replace their remotes with a simple existing Apple TV remote or a remote app for iOS devices. Siri would be nice add-on for complex instructions (“Siri, play an episode of SNL that i have not seen”), otherwise i do not want to talk to my TV.

    DVR Functionality can be minimized since most cable cos. provide on demand replay for a large catalog of popular programs. Where programs are not available on demand, use iCloud as the DVR and record once, off-line at Apple’s datacenter and shared among all subscribers interested in the same program.

    I do not want to buy another TV, but I will gladly buy a $100 or even a $200 upgraded Apple TV with a COAX interface for ALL 3 TVs I have around the house.

    • @Karl, This is in line with what I was suggesting, which is to have your cable or satellite provider deliver content in an iOS environment. They already have apps that can be fleshed out with maintenance and settings to configure service. Apple might want to replace those services with an iTunes subscription service, but most TV watchers would be content with the existing content in a simplified form.

      Apple might even add an SSD for the DVR functions.


  6. Karl says:

    @Gene Steinberg, DVR recordings on iCloud would mean that watching programs anywhere is possible.

    • @Karl, But still requiring a fast Internet connection available via Wi-Fi or wired Ethernet. An SSD could be a drop-in for those who still don’t have broadband, I suppose, or when broadband is down. Lots of storage doesn’t make sense on the Apple TV module, but on a full-blown TV, it makes a lot of sense, particularly if the cable and satellite providers won’t license their content to the cloud (and the entertainment companies have even objected to storing your recordings on the content provider’s own network).


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