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Another Anti-Apple Smart TV Rant

You’ll notice that the ongoing speculation about the “inevitable” arrival of an Apple “smart” TV is beginning to die down somewhat. While so-called industry analysts were jumping all over themselves claiming you’ll see such a beast by fall, now there are stories that this new gadget won’t arrive until next year, and maybe not until the year after.

At the same time, the rumor sites have been busy suggesting that Apple has been sampling parts for the new product, maybe not always aware of the fact that Apple may sample components for all sorts of gear, but only green lights a very few. Most never leave the prototype stage.

Now I can personally attest to the fact that some Apple products never seeing the light of day. Back in the 1990s, before my media credentials caused me to be tossed out of the group, I was a part of an Apple program called “Customer Quality Feedback” or “CQF,” where prerelease Apple products, both OS and hardware, were given out to some customers, under appropriate NDAs, for their feedback.

One of those products was a high performance Power Mac G3 variant, one actually mentioned in rumor sites at the time. But one day, I got an email from Apple requesting that I send the machine back to them post haste for disposal. The product bit the dust, and Apple, predictably, never explained why, nor would they acknowledge its existence. Sorry, folks, I don’t recall the code name, though I suppose I could remember with a little prompting.

But the last Mac I beta tested actually reached the market. It was the famous Bondi Blue iMac. They even offered to let me keep it, if it sustained a final firmware upgrade. But it didn’t, and thus the unit was returned. I wonder if it wasn’t meant to be that way.

Now when it comes to building a regular TV set, Apple would confront clear obstacles that weren’t present when they created the iPod, the iPhone and especially the iPad. The TV market is fully saturated, and most everyone who wants a high-definition flat panel set has one, even if it’s just a cheap entry-level model. TV makers are falling over themselves to stuff existing products to the gills with apps and, for pretty much all but the cheapest products, 3D. Whatever it takes to get you to sell your not-so-old TV and buy a new one.

Prices predictably continue to drop. My sister-in-law bought a perfectly respectable 40-inch LCD set for $350 late last year. Compare that to the price of my first color TV, in 1976, when it cost all of $1,000 for that 19-inch Sony Trinitron. When you count the impact of inflation, that $1,000 would be worth $4,032 in 2012 dollars, more than enough to get a high-end 64-inch plasma set along with a 3D Blu-ray player and a decent home theater sound system. Plus sales tax if applicable in your locality.

The point is that TV makers are barely making a profit in the rush to the bottom. It’s very difficult to persuade customers to upgrade unless their sets are getting a little long in the tooth. Yes, there are logical reasons for people whose sets are more than five years old to upgrade, but even that’s a hard sell. Yes, picture quality has improved somewhat, sets run cooler, consume less power, and last longer.

Into this breach, just what can Apple offer? A spiffier user interface? That may mean something to the few of you who ever change the settings on your set. But when it comes to programming, you don’t need a new TV to provide a friendly environment with which to change channels and record your favorites for later viewing. You don’t even need a TiVO, since the standard cable and satellite set top boxes are getting a little better. DirecTV’s new HD interface looks nice, and isn’t hard to use. Sure, I can see areas where navigation isn’t so user friendly, but it gets the job done. It’s also smart enough to automatically change the times on a scheduled show when the network moves it around.

So maybe Steve Jobs did solve the mystery of offering the best TV interface ever, a statement made in Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography of Apple’s late co-founder. But did that mean Apple was really going to make such an animal, or was that just something Jobs said to spook the consumer electronics industry? Certainly they were spooked, witness Lenovo, a maker of note-book computers, who decided they need to enter the smart TV space. Wherever he may be today, Jobs must be laughing hysterically.

Another argument in favor of the Apple smart TV is that they are busy negotiating content deals with the entertainment companies and maybe even other streaming services. But that would likely happen anyway, even if the only device on which to deliver that content was an Apple TV set top box. Besides, any user interface breakthrough could just as well be provided on the Apple TV for your present set. Apple could even offer a built-in picture calibration tool with a simple interface, so you can use your TV’s set up menu to get the best possible image. Again, Apple wouldn’t need to build the whole widget.

And now there’s yet another report indicating that, for this TV venture to succeed, Apple would have to deal with existing delivery systems, such as the cable and satellite providers. Maybe they’d just offer apps for the TV set, so you can use your existing service and get an Apple-designed interface.

Remember, also, that if Apple were to truly offer their own subscription service so you could cut the cable cord, 24/7 streaming would quickly blow the bandwidth caps imposed by most ISPs. And remember most of those ISPs also offer some sort of cable-style TV service, and they aren’t going to be too happy about giving you extra bandwidth if they’ve lost part of your business. But that is the dirty secret about TV streaming that most of the mainstream media — and the tech media for that matter — continues to ignore.