Apple and a TV Guide Alternative

August 5th, 2016

Apple clearly has a difficult time figuring out how to conquer the living room. At one time, it was thought that Apple might be building a TV set. That emerged from a Steve Jobs quote in Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography of him. Jobs announced the discovery of the greatest TV interface ever, and that surely freaked the industry. Remember the TV market is saturated, and manufacturers are racing to the bottom to sell cheaper and cheaper gear. I wouldn’t suggest what profits are being made, but they can’t be very high.

So where would Apple contribute to that market? It’s one that has been satisfied for years by many capable companies, and TVs are very much commodities except for the high-end models. Compare that to Apple. When Apple released the iPod, the digital player market was nascent with plenty of opportunity for a fast mover to take over. Apple also entered the smartphone market and made the iPhone warm and fuzzy for everyone, not just for executives and power users. Despite being touted for years as a next great thing, tablets didn’t do well until the iPad arrived.

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There were reports over the years suggesting that Apple had sampled TV prototypes, but eventually abandoned the project because they couldn’t devise a viable marketing plan. Making just another product in a cluttered and slowing market is hardly a sensible choice. Maybe it is for Samsung and other companies that opt to be in lots of places, from toaster ovens to smartwatches, and everywhere in between. But that’s not Apple’s game plan.

But Tim Cook continued to repeat the claim that Apple was deeply interested in the living room, so how would that present itself? One possibility was to build a subscription TV service to provide an alternative to cord cutters. These are the folks who have given up on traditional cable and satellite TV and try the a la carte route with Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video and other services. If you add a TV antenna to receive local broadcast stations, you may get all or most of the content you want without returning to a traditional service.

If you live too far from your nearest TV stations — as I did a time or two over the years — you might still have to return to cable or satellite anyway. In fact, that was the original reason why cable TV was created. That came before cable networks began to provide alternative original programming.

Well, the roster of steaming services also includes some of the same networks who deliver content to cable and satellite providers, such as HBO, Showtime, and even the individual free TV networks. Many offer free — with ads — downloads of recent shows, but you may have to pay if you want the older shows in their inventory.

So what would Apple offer in this market? At first, it appeared it might be something similar to Dish Network’s Sling TV, essentially a streaming service with a slimmed down package culled from a satellite provider’s regular packages. There are add-ons to more closely approximate what you get with satellite, but you don’t have the rich DVR options. So while it’s had some success, it’s just one of many choices.

Supposedly Apple tried to cut deals with the networks, without success. It may be that Apple’s demands were too stringent, or simply that it couldn’t come up with a marketing plan that made sense. Supposedly local TV broadcasts were to be included, and what about time-shifting, one of the more popular TV watching alternatives?

Well, that, too, has apparently gone by the wayside. In fact, having explored cord cutting, I haven’t found a way to do it that isn’t endlessly confusing — with different apps and interfaces — and less convenient than a cheap cable or satellite package. If you can survive with Netflix, or any single service, you can save lots of money. But when you start to add several, you’re not saving so much.

Well the new wrinkle is that Apple might just offer up the fourth-generation Apple TV as a partial replacement for TV Guide. So instead of using a DVR, you’d use the apps provided by TV networks for Apple’s streamer, and rely on that interface to provide smart TV listings, driven by Siri.

You’d still need to cut a deal with the cable/satellite services or the dedicated streaming services, but it would all appear within Apple’s unique interface. In other words, Apple might become a TiVo alternative. But how would time-shifting be handled? I suppose one could use a network’s on-demand system, and perhaps Apple could cut deals to store your recorded shows in iCloud for later viewing, with the same commercial skipping options you have now.

According to an article in recode, Apple’s first foray into providing intelligent TV listings came at the WWDC in June, where a single sign-on scheme was announced. This would allow you to login once and be able to take advantage of all the services to which you subscribe. Well, assuming the various services opt to support the plan, but why not? It would make it far more convenient for you to use their services, which means more business. That ought to be a good thing.

Now recode is well connected in the tech industry, so I wouldn’t doubt there’s a basis for this article. The only possible objection is that some of those services might object to a single sign-on, because it would tend to abstract the individual products into an amorphous whole where individual brand identity is minimized.

Indeed, I once thought that Apple might end up moving in that direction, offering a front-end to existing services. Is that the logic behind Steve Jobs’ claim of the best TV interface, a way to combine the listings from all or most services in a more convenient way? Anyone who frets over the poor interfaces used by some services — and has considered TiVo as an alternative — might just welcome an Apple alternative.

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