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Apple TV on the Surge? Hold On!

Before I get started, let me say that I have no idea whatever whether Apple will introduce a new Apple TV set-top box next week? The invitation to the WWDC implies they will based on the illustration, but published reports say it’s not yet ready. Meantime, if you can’t wait, the 2012 model, at $69, is a pretty good deal. You can always hope that, whatever interface refinements Apple might devise, they will be available for older models.

But this week there’s a breathless story claiming that Apple TV has been growing by leaps and bounds over the past year, or at least the share of paid TV streaming. The figures, based on data from Adobe Digital Index, claims streaming TV has climbed some 282% in the last year. This clearly augers well for cord cutters, particularly the news that Apple doubled its share.

Or at least that’s the story that’s being printed and reprinted without critical comment.

But what does Adobe have to do with stats from an Apple device, or any set-top streamer? Well, it seems these numbers are strictly based on authentications for premium channel apps, such as HBO Go. There’s also a claim that Mac use is lower, because fewer people streamed video content on it, which is a dumb assertion. Obviously one uses a personal computer for other purposes aside from watching TV shows.

As you see, the numbers are extremely limited and don’t tell us very much even within those limitations. So an authentication means that a user connects via the set-top box or smart TV interface. It doesn’t represent what shows are streamed or how long that channel or network is being watched. Obviously, the content company knows that from their internal figures, but it’s not a part of the data from Adobe.

More to the point, it doesn’t include such streaming networks as Amazon Prime, Hulu or even Netflix. And it certainly doesn’t include the content you stream from iTunes, whether it’s music, movies or TV shows. Indeed, a large number of people might be binging on a new show on Netflix, such as the forthcoming Sense8, which premiers on the day this article is being posted. But Adobe’s very limited numbers won’t include any such data.

In short, the numbers obviously cannot be applied to determining how many people are cord cutting, their preferences, what devices they watch or, except for the subset covered in Adobe’s numbers, what channel they are watching. So why take them so seriously?

But even if Netflix and similar services were included, what about set-top boxes that include exclusive content, such as an Apple TV?

Now this doesn’t mean there’s no cord cutting phenomenon, or that cable and satellite companies aren’t finding it more difficult to keep customers and sign up new ones. Their growth, such as it is, is almost always based on price increases. The rush to merge among cable and satellite companies clearly indicates they don’t believe their current business plans are workable. If they become larger, they will be able to negotiate better deals with the entertainment companies, so maybe we’ll have fewer instances of blackouts, when the lack of a contract means channels are pulled from a service for a while.

The latest merger proposal reportedly being worked on involves Dish Network and T-Mobile. Dish is already trying to reach cord cutters with Sling TV, which is largely a slimmed down TV service with fewer channels, a lower price, and cloud-based distribution. Forgetting how it’s transmitted, you really don’t get much of anything that’s different from a basic Dish package.

While doing better after breaking the traditional subsidized mobile handset model, T-Mobile still has its limits, particularly when it comes to the scope of its network. While it’s competitive in the big cities, smaller towns may have little or no service. Into the mix comes Dish with billions of dollars worth of wireless contracts but no network. Putting these two together seems to make sense.

What doesn’t make as much sense is the suggestion that the combination of the two services might somehow impact the success of Apple’s expected subscription TV venture. I fail to see how any of it would prevent Apple from reaching T-Mobile customers on its wireless network, since they couldn’t block the service. Don’t forget those new net neutrality rules and, besides, even though the FCC’s proposal is locked up in the courts for a while, it’s not that wired and wireless broadband companies will pull any sneaky stunts while the issues are still being litigated.

In any case, I remain curious about the next Apple TV — whenever it goes on sale — and Apple’s plans for conquering the living room. Offering something similar to current cord cutting schemes with an Apple label on them won’t do it. Apple needs to make the user experience simple, uncluttered by needless extra steps to watch the shows you want. It’s still a mess when you turn on the tube and try to move beyond watching a handful of channels on the cable box. There don’t seem to be any bright ideas to solve such problems, which means that, once again, it’s up to Apple to sort things out.