About that Apple TV Set

It seems the rumour mill around the Apple TV Set has started churning again. Let’s examine this topic for a moment.

The Hockey Puck

The future of the “TV” is in the streaming of content to a hockey puck device. Whether that puck is “integrated” into the panel remains to be seen. The latest Apple TV is already coming under criticism for what is seen to be an overly inflated price for something that is done as well in considerably cheaper devices.

Generally speaking, Apple charges premium prices for its integration of hardware, software and services. While Apple TV is a good product, it is not widely considered good enough for the price tag in an area where the software is not considered a differentiating factor (yet). TVs and hockey pucks have, until recently, struggled when it came to software, and I would venture to say that most people dislike the software bundled with regular TVs and satellite/cable boxes. The challenge here is that:

  • Most people just make do with the crappy (but improving) TV interfaces they have.
  • There are not that many “killer” apps. Broadly there are only two at present: video and games. With a bit of music thrown in (however, that job is being eaten by smart speakers and soon the HomePod).

As such, delivering an easy to access streaming app, game or music player is just about all the average home viewer wants.

The differentiating factor, is the service (or the game). HBO, Netflix, Hulu or Amazon are not limited to one box, they are on all the boxes. Ditto, more or less, when it comes to streaming music. As such, the choice of box is more often than not driven by price and “good enough” with the true decision point being “Which streaming services do I sign up for?”

4K is a feature not a selling a point and will be adopted across all devices and services in time. The integration of software and the value of “how it works” is not that valuable in the living room at present. Especially if you are not deeply invested into the iTunes ecosystem.

On the mobile phone and computer, the integration of software and hardware is so critical because the use cases for the devices are so diverse. They enable so many people to do so many things that are used in so many situations. When it comes to TV, most people just want to watch TV (or YouTube), play games or listen to music (when not watching the screen). For the rest they have their phone, tablet and increasingly some form of voice computing.

The Screen

Since Apple already has a a horse in the hockey puck race, that leaves Apple with the screen. Apple makes some gorgeous displays. And as Nilay Patel convincingly lays out in his piece about the possibilities of ProMotion for a TV set. Apple can surely bring some much needed improvements to the experience. However, that argument to one side, despite the fact that Apple makes gorgeous displays and has some great software to make them even better, for some time it looked highly likely that Apple would be leaving the external monitor market. Only selling integrated devices – which a TV set would be. That was until the announcement of the Mac Pro and the poor showing of other brand monitors. As such, if there is any credence to this rumour, it is that Apple will be looking to re-enter the monitor market with a range of high-end monitors that are there to be the perfect display for your Mac Pro or possibly your Apple TV. An expensive and premium monitor for a niche market of customers willing to shell out a lot of money for Apple hardware. I suppose that the market for such high-end, specialised devices is small. The equation in many people’s minds might be that they want to strike a balance with good picture quality and price when it comes to the screen and video quality. For most people, I suspect, they may be willing to shell out a little more on the screen, but then what is left for the puck when they have to pay for all their video service and satellite/cable too?

Too Many Products

I would not go so far as to say Apple has too many balls in the air at the moment. It is just that some balls stay in the air longer. That is to say, some products do not progress and improve as quickly as others or as quickly as some customers would like. The addition of a raised, white ring on the Apple TV remote screams “we just didn’t have time/it’s not a priority at present”. There are few devices in Apple’s current stable that raise so much ire as the Apple TV Remote, yet with Apple’s skill sets would be achievable without massive investments. However, the need to field an edge to edge phone, bring the cellular Apple Watch, AirPods and a completely revamped Mac line to bear as well as a new product, the HomePod, is clearly taking priority over the TV.

My gut tells me the HomePod will follow the same path as the Apple TV. Amazon will keep iterating and expanding for all it is worth in the Home/TV area since it does not play in the mobile space at present. Google’s contributions will be more similar to Apple’s in that they will come out with a new device and vision every now and then but will not submit the necessary resources to making them must have devices.

It is all well and good to say that Apple should enter a space and save those of us frustrated by less than perfect experiences, but the reality is that product categories are not one time things. When Apple enters a market they believe they can make a difference there, but they cannot enter every market and regularly, update all those products all the time. One need only look to the frustrations around the Mac, iPad and Apple TV upgrade cycles to realize there is no magic bullet.

Apple will slowly but surely keep turning the wheel in the TV space and a hockey puck keeps their options open while they tease out the threads and see where they lead. A successful HomePod may well start to tip the scales towards Apple creating a larger presence in the living room over time. The fact is, coming out with a premium TV set, with ProMotion and perfectly mastered video will convince some, but the reality is that good enough is a strong motivator in the TV market at present. For Apple it will be a case of finding the right levers to pull in the right way to make the entry worthwhile.

So for now, I think Apple will keep chipping away at the TV. At times the change is imperceptible and frustrating but it is happening. Just not as fast as some would hope.