Time for Another Apple TV Rumor: Ho Hum!

April 8th, 2014

For a while I thought that the media fetish over the possibility of an Apple TV set was over and done with. But it’s back again with yet another alleged supply chain rumor about Apple sampling 65-inch flat panels. This time, they are reportedly using OLED, a promising technology that has yet to appear in a product people can actually afford.

OLED, short for “organic light-emitting diode” is yet another technology employed in digital displays. The supposed advantage over the various LCD schemes used now include extremely deep black levels, high contrast levels, and infinite viewing angles. The latter is the biggest advantage all things being equal, because it means that a family doesn’t have to crowd together on the sofa to get the best TV picture.

The display can also be near paper-thin, although that’s an advantage that’s more cosmetic than practical. OLEDs can even be folded, which means, I suppose that you could carry your TV set with you on vacation, though you’ll still need some sort of digital control box to contain the rest of the components and the connection ports.

Yes, there are a few OLED sets out there if you can afford the five-figure purchase price, but that just takes us back to the days when the first plasma and LCD sets appeared. It doesn’t make the technology practical for the mass market. So why would Apple consider OLED?

Unless Apple and the flat panel makers have developed some miraculous new variant of OLED technology that brings costs down to more realistic levels, why produce such a product? Granted, exiting LCD displays, with all the bells and whistles such as Full-Array LED backlight technology, can deliver really good pictures. Viewing angles are decent in the best models, but nowhere near as good as plasma.

So why not plasma? Well, it’s not as energy efficient, and, frankly, is quickly being phased out by existing TV makers. In other words, it’s close to becoming yesterday’s news despite offering a superior picture to LCD in most respects except for brightness. But how bright do you need your TV to be?

Now making an OLED set fits with the Apple boutique meme, that the company builds products strictly for the well-heeled. Regular people, they say, buy smartphones from Samsung. This conclusion avoids the real issue is that, despite the fact that Apple plays in the higher price points, the prices aren’t so high that regular people can’t buy them. With a two-year wireless contract, the iPhone 4S is free, and the iPhone 5c, which, despite the claims that it’s a failure, continues to sell quite well, is $99 for the 16GB version. What’s more, carriers and consumer electronic stores will sometimes even discount an iPhone 5s.

As to TVs, the market is heavily saturated. TV makers continue to struggle to convince people to buy new sets, to fight the perception that your five-year-old set still delivers a great picture, and are the new models really that much better? Such extras as Internet access, smart TV apps, and 3D, haven’t stemmed the recent declines in TV sales. The HD revolution is yesterday’s news, and most potential customers have already upgraded.

This year, the TV makers are hoping to entice you to pay extra for 4K, which doubles vertical and horizontal resolution. But the improvement in picture quality is only really visible on the really large screens, and 4K content is sparse. Sure, 4K is big in the pro market, and the Mac Pro and the latest Final Cut Pro X are tailor-made to edit higher resolution videos with great performance. But that doesn’t mean it won’t take a few years for 4K to spread to the masses. Will it be enough to boost sales? That remains to be seen. Certainly 3D didn’t help, although a glasses-free version is on the way.

With digital music players, smartphones and tablets, Apple was able to make a difference with markets that hadn’t reached their full potential. The same would be true for smartwatches should an iWatch come to be.

But the TV market is mature and saturated. What sort of difference could Apple make to convince people to buy new sets now? Would a more affordable OLED set make the difference, or do customers truly care about a screen that you can curve or fold? The answer is the OLED is now a plaything for the well-heeled, and it’s not such a new technology.

OLED was actually invented in 1987 by researchers at the Eastman Kodak company. The Kodak EasyShare LS633 digital camera, released in 2003, was one of the first devices equipped with an OLED display. Flexible OLED technology also dates back to the early 2000s, so it has taken years just to release TVs with large screen displays at extremely high prices. Does it really seem as if an OLED breakthrough is imminent?

This doesn’t mean that there won’t be an Apple smart TV in our near future. In the meantime, I’m sure all sorts of prototypes are being built and tested, and an OLED model isn’t out of the question. Perhaps Apple is hoping that, should the technology mature some day and panels become affordable, they’ll get an early jump. But not now.

One more thing: It won’t be called iTV. That’s the name of a broadcast network in the UK that has existed in various forms since the 1950s. Do you really think Apple will suddenly be able to acquire the name, or that the network would have any reason to call it something else?

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