We all want TV Done Right, free of the Soviet Era set-top box, UI and opaque contracts. We imagine Apple will put all the pieces together. But what's desirable and "obvious" might not be so simple or soon...
"When I go into my living room and turn on the TV, I feel like I have gone backwards in time by 20 to 30 years," Apple CEO Tim Cook told . NBC's Brian Williams "It's an area of intense interest. I can't say more than that."
These words -- and similar ones in a substantial Bloomberg interview -- launched yet another round of frenzied speculation about the mythical Apple TV.
Piper Jaffray's Gene Munster insists that an Apple TV in 2013 is a sure thing. "It will be the biggest thing in consumer electronics since the smartphone". (Of course, Munster has been saying this every year for the last three years...)
Another analyst, Wells Fargo's Maynard Um, agrees that the device is inevitable, if only because a full-fledged television is "more in tune" with Apple than a simple set-top box.
First, let's take a calmer look at Tim Cook's words. As many have noted, there's nothing new here. Cook said essentially the same things at the D10 Conference last May and has repeated the message on earnings conference calls. The only changes to the Apple TV script in the past twelve months are the stated number of black pucks sold in the last fiscal year (more than 5 million), and an upgrade from "hobby" to "intense interest". The actual meaning of this "interest" is widely open to interpretation.
Speculation aside, Cook has one thing right: The set-top box experience does place one back in time by 20 to 30 years:
-- We still can't order channels à la carte or search the program grid. For the latter you have to go to your tablet. And forget about the former.
-- You can't buy your own set-top box; you have to rent it from your carrier. For STB makers, there's no incentive to build a better product.
-- Add in the contorted rights and packages games played by the content providers and you end up with today's mess.
The solution? Channels, shows, special events should all be presented as apps. Click, pay, and play, with standard fare for free. Catch the 6 pm news when you get home at 9:30; watch two programs side-by-side with Android 7 or iOS 9, all on your screen of choice: smartphone, tablet, PC, or TV.
The technology isn't an issue. There's enough bandwidth on cable (or pretend-fiber) networks, plenty of storage on servers, and all the required computing power in current or future TV boxes, from Apple and its competitors.
But there's an obstacle in the tangled, encrusted business models that the Comcasts, CBSs, and Disneys cling to out of fear that Apple will wrest control of their content, that they'll be disintermediated a la iTunes or the iPhone/iPad App Store.
Second, I simply don't believe Apple will make, or even wants to make, a TV set. To realize the dream, as discussed previously, you need to put a computer -- something like an Apple TV module -- inside the set. Eighteen months later, as Moore's Law dictates, the computer is obsolete but the screen is just fine. No problem, you'll say, just make the computer module removable, easily replaced by a new one; more revenue for Apple...and you're right back to today's separate box arrangement. And you can spread said box to all HDTVs, not just the hypothetical Apple-brand set.
If carriers and content owners can be tricked, bribed, sued, or otherwise made to see the light and wisdom of higher revenue per subscriber, the TV Done Right will descend from Heaven in the form of a next generation Apple set-top box, not a TV set.
So why is Tim Cook talking about Apple TV at all?
The simplest explanation is that he's simply answering an interviewer's question. Possible… but not likely in such tightly choreographed exercises.
A cheekier possibility is that the answer is a head fake. Cook, a noted College Football fan, is trying to draw Google offsides, to provoke then into yet another embarrassing Google TV moment. And maybe even goad Microsoft into another WebTV dud.
Amusing… but not likely.
In Google's case, the failed experiment has been digested and the next iteration will be much sharper. (Note well that Google's subsidiary Motorola is putting its set-top box business up for bids, with "vendor financing possible"…)
For Microsoft, the company is happy with its successful Xbox ecosystem and its ability to provide TV content through its game console, even if that content doesn't flow onto its phone and tablets as nicely as they would like. In any event, Tim Cook wishes Steve Ballmer no ill -- au contraire, Cook wants Ballmer to stay on the job as long as he keeps helping his friends in Cupertino.
A more serious interpretation: Apple's CEO is indicating that he'll continue to invest talent and money until the TV obstacles are finally surmounted. In other words: "Join us and ride the wave that will sweep away the competition".
Speaking of the competition, Sony is trying to break free from its profitless HDTV past by building a new 4K TV business.
If you have the opportunity, treat yourself to a 4K TV demo at a Sony Store. The spectacle is stunning: You see the delicate capillaries on a baby's eyelids, feathers on birds, minute details on street scenes without any of the blurring you get on today's HDTV.
With 3,840 by 2,160 pixels on an 80-inch TV screen, the 4K boasts 4 times the resolution of 1080p (1920 by 1080)… and an even greater price tag ratio: $25K vs $2K or less. The 4K TV is delivered with a server that contains full-resolution movies because cable and satellite carriers provide no such content -- and have no plans to do so.
Sony has a valuable asset in its movie library and a need to push its new 4K TV technology. Could this portend an Apple-Sony alliance? The two companies have worked well together in the past, a CEO-level conversation could easily happen. But even if an Apple TV box provided a strong showcase for a Sony 4K TV set, carriers would still have to be shown how to milk the opportunity.
On still more sober musings, let's consider Apple TV's place in the company's business. In the 2012 fiscal year ending last september, Apple's total revenue was $156B. 5 million Apple TVs translates into $500M; that's 0.3% of the company's total.
Why bother? In 2014, Apple's revenue could exceed $250B. Even if Apple TV sales were to grow by ten times, they would still represent no more than a 2% fragment of the total.
The answer is that Apple TV isn't meant to generate revenue but to enhance the value of the more muscular, profit-making members of the ecosystem: iPhones, iPads and, to a lesser extent, Macs. In a similar, grander, and now well-understood way, iTunes isn't in the business of making money by itself. iTunes made the iPod larger than the Mac in 2006, and it made the App Store possible -- and the iPhone and the iPad as profit engines.
For Apple TV, is there a path from today's supporting role to a $50B size, to 20% of Apple's revenue in 2014? (Gene Munster thinks there is.)
My belief is that Apple TV sales numbers will continue to increase as the device is slowly, patiently improved and the ecosystem is enhanced. In a not-too-distant future we'll see explicit Apple TV apps, similar to those on iPhones and iPads.
And someday, Apple will reach a limited agreement with a carrier such as Comcast. The enhanced experience will create a wedge -- and will spur competitors. As a result, TV will at last become "modern" -- sitting down in front of your TV set will no longer send you time traveling to 1992.
Late update, an amusing coincidence: a just-discovered "Apple TV set" at Lyfe, a modern Palo Alto eatery.
With my apologies for the low quality pictures, this is the menu on five TV sets, side-by-side in portrait mode:
And, if you're curious, you discover five Mac Minis bolted to the back of the TV sets:
Gene Munster should take a look.