From the day Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography, “Jobs” was published, there were heightened expectations that Apple planned to build a TV set. It all came in response to the quote from Jobs that he had cracked the secret for the best TV interface ever. Since there was already an Apple TV set-top box for streaming content to your set, this must surely mean Apple planned to go all the way. Well, perhaps.
So rumors arose about the expected features of such a set, emphasizing such capabilities as Siri integration. Even then, you would have expected to use the remote to state your wishes, since just shouting “Hey Siri” in a large room with other family members present, and possibly competing for attention, wouldn’t be terribly efficient.
As usual when expectations of a new Apple product category arise, other companies attempted to react. So at one CES, Lenovo, the PC maker, announced their own smart TV set, apparently to sell in China at first. After the initial announcements, news about the product seems to have vanished.
Even amid reports of when Apple’s TV set would appear, there were other reports that it had been delayed, and delayed yet again.
As you might have noticed, there’s very little talk about an Apple smart TV nowadays. According to published reports, Apple experimented with one, but ultimately gave it up a year ago. One key reason is that they couldn’t make a substantial difference or a dent in a very crowded market. So I suppose it’s best to let VIZIO, Samsung and all the rest continue to slug it out with 4K and lower prices.
Now it’s fair to say that the latest reports about discontinuing development of a TV might just be ways to avoid admitting they just got it all wrong. Since there’s no Apple TV set, it’s Apple’s fault for giving up on the idea. It’s not possible that the rumors were wrong, or that a TV set may have been one of many products Apple evaluates but never produces. Indeed, one of the most prominent industry analysts, Gene Munster, of Piper Jaffray, has been touting the prospects for such a product for years, and only now has given up on such speculation.
So we’re back to the souped up Apple TV set-top box. The price of the current model, three years old, has been reduced to $69. That may be a good way to boost sales, particularly since the major competition, Roku, has already refreshed its models. In any case, the latest rumors have it that Apple is poised to launch the next generation Apple TV at the WWDC in June. Reason is that there will be an SDK for developers and perhaps the announcement of an Apple subscription TV service.
With a new Apple TV, there’s lots to talk about. Will it keep the current form factor, or appear in a different form? What about the features? Will there be support for 4K video, sometimes called Ultra HD? Some of the rumors suggest that the answer is no because of the low level of market penetration for the new high definition TV standard. But with decent sets now available for less than $1,000, and Ultra HD Blu-ray waiting in the wings, it would seem the format is due for a major takeoff this year, particularly around the holiday season.
Besides, it’s not that Apple is avoiding 4K. You can already output to a 4K display on some of the new MacBooks, and don’t forget the iMac with 5K Retina display that just got a decent price reduction this week. So it would make plenty of sense to add 4K as a tentpole feature of the new Apple TV. That would be the most obvious and compelling improvement, the one that will actually be noticeable to some users actually streaming content from the services that do offer 4K (at least with a limited number of selections), such as Amazon Instant Video and Netflix.
Other expected features include Siri support (but consider the conditions I posed above), support for third-party apps and perhaps gaming. Hardware is expected to be based on Apple’s A8 chip, but since an A9 is expected to power the next generation iPhone, why not go the whole hog? There may also be more storage to accommodate 4K streaming.
When it comes to an Apple subscription TV service, I have to wonder what difference Apple can make over existing alternatives. After all, there’s already Dish Network’s Sling TV and PlayStation Vue. Both provide subsets of the channels that are offered on cable and satellite services. Fewer channels means a lower price, but how does that differ from just ordering up basic cable or satellite? Quite often you can get an introductory package of either for not much more than the cheap streaming package, with far more to offer, not to mention broadcast television. Other than the emotional tie of getting rid of cable, the difference is difficult to define.
In any case, with no more talk of an Apple TV set, I do look forward to the next Apple TV set-top box, but would like to see how, aside perhaps from 4K, Apple will make overhaul the industry. Is some interface wizardry also involved, echoing what Steve Jobs said in that biography? Or was he just thinking out loud to spook the competition?