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So Maybe Apple Won’t Make a TV?

Some industry analyst continue to suggest that Apple is going to build a TV set, and that it will be announced later this year with an on-sale date that may stretch into 2013 or 2014. That this sort of prediction was made even before a certain comment on the matter from Steve Jobs in Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography is especially important, since those predictions obviously never came to pass.

Certainly, CEO Tim Cook was predictably coy about the future of Apple’s TV initiative. Yes, sales of the revised 1080p Apple TV are roughly double over the predecessor. Yes, those sales are very much on par with the number of Macs Apple used to sell, but these days the figures are a mere pittance, particularly when we’re talking about a product that costs just $99. So, by testing the waters, Apple clearly has an end game, and customer reaction will surely dictate where they take the set top box concept. But it may be that Apple hasn’t decided which way to go.

Now today’s Apple TV is very much a limited function device, with loads of potential. Some point to AirPlay as a magic bullet, since you can use an Apple TV as a receiver with which beam content from your iPhone and iPad to your TV. Macs will join in that game with the release of Mountain Lion. But most of you watch a whole lot more on TV, and the question is how Apple will handle the content you traditionally get from a cable or satellite TV provider. Yes, you can use iTunes or Netflix to stream movies and recent TV shows, but that only partly replaces the aforementioned alternatives, though I grant that’s enough for some of you. But is that all there is?

Now the real question is whether it makes sense for Apple to build the entire widget, rather than just an accessory device that can hook up with any TV that has an HDMI interface (and that goes back more than five years). Can Apple offer anything special in TV hardware that requires building a complete set rather than just an Apple TV set top box? That’s a serious question. I suppose Apple could build a set with superior picture quality compared to current models. Maybe it would be nicer to look at, though I think most of you want the exterior aside from the screen to just stay out of the way. The era of fancy cabinetry ended long ago. Perhaps Apple could devise a tricked out sound system, but you’d hope it wouldn’t be near as expensive as Bose’s VideoVision, which lists for just shy of $5,000.

Besides, it’s not as if people are in a rush to upgrade their sets. I’m sure most of you keep them for five to ten years. I have a set that’s nearly 20 years old in my son’s now unused bedroom. It still works perfectly, so why replace it? If there’s anything wrong with TV, it’s the handling of user interfaces and integrating multiple devices, such as a DVR, gaming console, Blu-ray player and even an Apple TV.

But what argument can Apple make to convince you that you want to buy a new smart TV with their brand name on it? How would it be stocked? Would they be stacked up in the rear storage room at an Apple Store? Would you be restricted to checking out a demonstration model, and be forced to check a box on an order sheet to get one delivered to your home? Or would they be available for immediate delivery strictly from a dealer who can handle big box hardware, such as a Best Buy or a Walmart?

But taking orders for later delivery is against the philosophy of an Apple Store, where you expect immediate gratification, except, perhaps, for a special order Mac. Taking orders without stock is a throwback to the days of the catalog stores from Sears and Wards, though it was also used at the failed Gateway store chain years ago. That’s not a mistake Apple will repeat.

Besides, most of what Apple require with a TV interface can be contained in the tiny confines of an Apple TV. Why do they need to replace your TV set? Sure, perhaps for the initial setup process, where you make a set of screen quality adjustments that most of you overlook anyway. I wouldn’t think Apple would build a TV set just to replace that function; the rest can be handled just fine with a set top box.

One theory has it that Apple might try to strike deals with existing content delivery networks, such as the cable and satellite providers. They’d have to do is give Apple admission, and provide iOS apps to use instead of their own set top boxes, so you can take advantage of Apple’s superior interface. No, I’m not talking of something in the vein of CableCard, which is a failed one-way connection scheme that cable services offered for use with third-party gear such as a TiVO. The main problem with the CableCard scheme is that you can’t use two-day services, such as video-on-demand. The successor is a work in progress, so it would be up to the individual services to make deals with Apple that they haven’t, so far at least, made with anyone else.

As far as Apple replacing your TV content provider with their own service, it’s not going to happen so long as ISPs set bandwidth caps. Apple could, I suppose, sign deals to get unfettered access to an ISP’s pipes, but that would be skirting net neutrality in the U.S. in a very controversial fashion. But I’ve already covered that subject.