Friday, May 11, 2012

The Apple TV rumors are hard to kill off

Now that the new iPad has been out for a few months (it's just launching this weekend in a number of other countries including Brazil) the rumor mill is hard at work as tech sites try to come up with something that will drive traffic. The usual suspects are the newest version of the iPhone, a smaller tablet and the Apple TV, or more precisely, the new Apple HDTV, to keep it separate from the existing Apple TV product.

The small tablet rumor won't die if only because too many people are invested in it, having predicted it for a couple of years now. Apple may well launch one this year if only because they can do so fairly easily.

iPhone rumors, on the other hand, are more rare. I think the reason for this is that many, including myself, are having a hard time thinking where the form can go from here. The idea of a larger display is silly, though that won't stop the rumors. As always, the excitement of any new iPhone is less about hardware than about software: make the damn thing do something new... like solve the European debt crisis.
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So that leaves us with the long rumored Apple HDTV product. I have been skeptical about the prospects that Apple would launch an actual television set, the industry is mature and prices and margins are falling. Panasonic said today, for example, that the company will miss its earnings forecast and that television sales are down.

“TV and semiconductor businesses were substantially unprofitable offsetting all profit from other profitable business,” Panasonic said in their earnings statement. So tell me why Apple would want to enter this market?

But the whole television industry is at the beginnings of a revolution that will leave the platform looking very different than it has for half a century. One could go into all the details of this, but an innocent conversation with my youngest daughter told me all I needed to know. Yesterday, while discussing our Comcast cable programming my daughter said she really didn't care what we did with cable TV, she just wanted to make sure we kept our Apple TV. The ability to watch Netflix content, or content through iTunes, was far more important to her than anything Comcast had to offer, especially since Comcast's own on-demand feature rarely worked properly (constant error messages).

Most television observers, though, see Apple as being in a bind. While no one doubts that Apple could produce a damn fine television, with innovative controls and features, content is still tied to the networks and studios. As good as Netflix is, its streaming content cupboard is still fairly bare. And who wants to have to pay for every television show if one is forced to use iTunes for content? I dumped my MLB.TV subscription because it didn't work for me (the service gave me error messages and the Philippines based support people were more eager to cancel my service than help me).

I don't know about your household, but mine does not need another television set. My Panasonic and Sony sets, ironically, are just fine – two 42-inch plasmas seem more than enough for any household other than Mark Elliot Zuckerberg's.

But the rumors of Apple's supposedly imminent TV speak of the new television being able to make calls, play games, etc. But I reflect back on the launch of the iPhone when Steve Jobs claimed that Apple's device and iOS was years ahead of the competition – he was probably right. Would throwing in a camera and adding more features prove impossible for other companies to copy? (Many are doing it now.)

Maybe, and maybe not. I'm torn. Apple's genius lies in creating platforms that are easy to use and work out of the box. My eldest daughter, who used an Android phone for a year, tells me that her hand-me-down iPhone upgraded her life immeasurably. It works, which is more than she could say for her brand new Android phone.

I am personally not looking forward to spending a thousand dollars or more on a new television, and in this economy few others are either. A new Apple HDTV could prove to be Tim Cook's undoing... or it could be his legacy. I've learned to not underestimate the teams at Apple, but their work is cut out for them should they decide to enter the television set market.

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