The Living Room and Apple’s Lost Opportunities

January 21st, 2016

So not so long ago, it seemed that Apple was poised to launch a TV subscription service. No less than Les Moonves, the outspoken president and CEO of CBS, stated, according to a Bloomberg report, that they had conversations with Apple about such a service. Indeed, he remarked that Apple was “having conversations with everyone” about it.

Some weeks later, the news turned bad. Despite all the talk, there was no action. Apple had yet to come to a deal for the new service. While nobody is being quoted officially — and Apple would be last to comment on a perceived failure to reach a deal — the rumors claimed that the entertainment companies didn’t want to agree to a slim package that would offer a dozen or two channels for prices that started at $20 or so. Instead, they wanted to offer up larger bundles of channels.

How many?

Well, if you’re accustomed to the standard cable or satellite plan that offers up to several hundred channels, you are no doubt familiar with content clutter. But having 300 channels and nothing to watch is a very common phenomenon. Why pay up to $150 or more per month only to end up sitting there watching a blank screen, or being forced to dig through the Netflix catalog to find something, anything? What’s the point of having so much with so little?

It’s not that the prices are getting any lower. Each time the content providers negotiate a new deal, they want a raise. In some cases, the cable/satellite people can’t reach an agreement, and thus some channels are no longer available for a while. So if you’re a fan of a particular show, you may find yourself missing an episode, or a live sporting event, hoping that you’ll be able to catch it via on-demand later when the contracts are finally signed.

At the same time, it’s not that customers are flocking to the cable/satellite providers. They routinely offer special bundles featuring Internet/TV and maybe telephone for a lower price to attract your business. You only have to agree to keep the service for a year or two. At this point, the price goes up. Well, unless you call, threaten to cancel, and they find a new deal for you.

Indeed, I recall spending several years as a DirecTV customer forever in search of a better deal for them to keep me as a subscriber. I finally found a cheaper 24-month package at Cox Communications, the cable company that serves this area. And you just know, if you’ve followed my ongoing financial odyssey, that I really strive hard to survive on a budget.

In any case, I’ve been skeptical of cord cutting because you still have to pay for several services if you want variety, and the price begins to add up. Indeed, one of those introductory cable/satellite discount packages might just be cheaper — well as long as the discount lasts. You’ll also get more content, except for the exclusives from such services as Amazon Instant Video and Netflix.

So far I’m not impressed with one effort to offer a streaming TV subscription service known as Sling TV, from Dish Network. So it seems that you get little more than what a basic cable/satellite package would offer. Picture quality is said to be inferior to what Dish provides to its satellite subscribers, so where’s the advantage?

If Apple is merely going to offer a tiny package at a tiny price, how does that advance the state of the art?. I suppose if local stations were included, that might be acceptable. But how would that differ from what you can get now without worrying about consuming too much bandwidth on your Internet connection?

Now I once thought Apple had more in mind, a new interface or overall plan to conquer the living room. In Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography of Steve Jobs, Apple’s late co-founder, was quoted as saying that they had developed an amazing interface for TV sets. “It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.”

The TV industry was freaked. During one CES event, Lenovo, a PC maker, launched a smart TV, which was supposed to first appear in China. Only the set doesn’t seem to have actually made it past the prototype stage, but that’s nothing new at the CES, where many products are demonstrated that somehow never make it to market.

But there is no Apple TV set, no evidence of “the simplest user interface you could imagine.” Perhaps Jobs, knowing his time was short and the impact that book would have, said this merely to drive the competition crazy. They’d invest heavily in improving their designs, or trying to match what they imagined Apple would do.

And it did nothing.

The fourth generation Apple TV has a spiffier interface, Siri, search and apps. But no 4K support, and there’s nothing about the look and feel that spells revolutionary. An Apple TV set may have been planned at one time, but it doesn’t seem to have gone anywhere. Even if a subscription service shows up, that’s hardly unique. So if Apple has a plan, it remains unfulfilled.

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