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Questions About an Apple TV Service

Forget about the widely-quoted proclamations of the late Steve Jobs that he had discovered the greatest TV interface of all, bar none. It was first published in the authorized biography of Apple’s late co-founder, written by Walter Isaacson. And I think those of you who read the book or just his comments realize the author knew absolutely nothing about the tech industry. He was just an experienced author paid to interview people and write a book.

Besides, how often did Jobs say he actually hated TV?

Since then, however, there were widespread rumors that Apple had a TV set in the wings, and that prototypes had been built. I suspect some TV makers altered their designs to compete with the expected competition from Apple, which never, of course, actually appeared. Maybe Jobs simply wanted to freak the industry.

Even the Apple TV streamer has been sold without change for three years, other than a $30 price cut announced last week. But the latest news has it that it’s not about an Apple TV set, but an Apple TV streaming service to compete with the likes of Netflix, Sling TV, Hulu Plus and, evidently, your cable or satellite provider.

Supposedly the deal will deliver 25 channels at prices estimated from $20 to $40. The stories mention content from ABC, CBS and Fox, but claim that NBC isn’t going to be on the list. You see, talks with NBC’s parent company, Comcast, are allegedly off due to a falling out between the companies. Or maybe because Comcast is busy buying Time Warner Cable, or maybe both.

That’s the original report, but there’s now a rumor that NBC will deliver an app for Apple TV this fall that will require a subscription to a cable TV provider. I wouldn’t presume to know which rumor is true, or maybe it’s both to some extent.

Of course, there’s nothing knew about Apple working on their own TV subscription offering. That’s been around since 2009, and it’s said to be a key reason why a new Apple TV has been delayed. But you wonder whether it will require new hardware, or maybe Apple is waiting for cheaper chips to support 4K video. So perhaps the A9 chip expected to be included in the next generation iPhones will also find its way into a revised Apple TV this fall.

There’s nothing out of the ordinary in the newest speculation about Apple’s TV service. But with a TV service coming from Sony, and Dish Network’s Sling TV already in operation, what does Apple bring to the table? On the surface, it doesn’t appear to be much more than yet another slimmed down cable TV alternative.

So if it comes to pass, is it all about a prettier interface and better integration among the various channels to make it easier for you to select the shows you want to watch? Is that quite enough? What about a cloud-based alternative to the DVR, so you can time shift without depending on a set-top box with a  big hard drive? But does the storage scheme even matter? What about making all the content on-demand? That means you don’t have to remember to set a record button. Just select the shows you like, and watch them when you want.

If a DVR capability is offered, do you have the same ability that you have now on cable and satellite services to fast forward past the ads? Or does the deal include a limited commercial capability, so you only have to put up with a few minutes of interruptions? Where do local stations come into play? Would you be expected to install a traditional antenna, or, perish forbid, get basic cable to cover those stations? That’s what’s lacking from existing cord-cutting services. And don’t diminish the need for terrestrial channels,  and the still-large audiences they attract. Take this example: Every week when new shows are broadcast, over 16 million viewers tune in to NCIS on a local station in the U.S.. Add to that a few million more who time shift the show on a DVR and watch it later in the week. There’s still a sizable audience out there for traditional TV fare.

So many questions, so few answers. But certainly Apple wouldn’t want to deliver a TV service that really isn’t that much different from other services. A few interface tweaks won’t do it. Online DVR capability might. If it accompanied an all-new Apple TV, along with perhaps a free month’s service to give customers a chance to sample it, it might indeed gain some traction.

But what about those dreaded ISP bandwidth caps?

Consider the inevitable 4K video streaming capability, and the fact that most of you spend several hours a day in front of the tube. How quickly will a typical bandwidth cap of several hundred million gigabytes be exhausted? Does Apple have to make a deal with the cable and satellite companies to allow them to sidestep that requirement? This is the elephant in the room that the rumors seldom address.

Sure, perhaps Apple has something in the works this time, and it’s also possible the bandwidth factor will be addressed. But I remain skeptical. How many times must a rumor be repeated before it comes true — or you just look elsewhere for Apple speculation?