Apple television still in the labs, still not going to market any time soon

For a long time now we've heard Apple has television prototypes in the lab, but nothing even approaching a final design or go-to-market plan for the product. According to the Wall Street Journal, nothing has changed in that regard.

Two people said Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., 2317.TW +0.63% which assembles the iPhone and iPad, has been collaborating with Japan's Sharp Corp. 6753.TO +7.80% on the design of the new television. "It isn't a formal project yet. It is still in the early stage of testing," said one of the people.

Jony Ive is almost certainly doing the design, though Hon Hai and Sharp are just as likely collaborating on the prototypes.

The late Steve Jobs famously said the go-to-market strategy for a television was even more difficult than a phone, with entrenched, regionalized monopoly cable companies and future-adverse content providers. The Apple TV set top box has often been called a "hobby" compared to the serious business of Apple's iPhone, iPod, iPad, and Mac product lines.

In a recent interview, Apple's CEO, Tim Cook escalated Apple's living room plans from hobby to "area of intense interest".

Making a television, or even a decoupled panel to along with a more easily upgradable brain box, would give Apple control of "input zero", or the initial startup and default user experience, and relegate everything from cable and satellite boxes to game consoles like the Xbox, to other media streamers like Roku to inputs further down the chain.

Yet panels remain a limited, low-margin business, and no matter how smart the brain or brain-box, and how good the user experience, it would be tough for Apple to disrupt even the current, pathetic status quo without compelling content offerings, including live events, news, sports, and the other living room staples.

My guess remains that we'll keep seeing the slow, steady evolution of the current Apple TV product for now, with more and more channel partners like Netflix and Hulu coming on line. Apple can be remarkably patient. If the goal is a unified interface to search across all content, find the program you want, and watch it when you want, that can be broken down into manageable steps. If they can't overcome the myopia of cable and content companies, they can outmaneuver it or simply outlast it.

Apple shareholders are anxious about the timing and nature of the company's plans. While iPhones and iPads are selling briskly, they believe television could be one of the next big catalysts for Apple's business as those products eventually peter out. Apple shares fell to $541.39 on Tuesday from all-time high of $702.10 in September amid concerns about the company's future profits and growth.

Apple has had 3 big products. It was decades between the Mac and iPod, and over a half a decade between the iPod and iPhone (and its iPad offshoot). Treating Apple like Hollywood or the video game industry, and expecting them to deliver blockbusters on a year basis is folly and will likely be rewarded as such.

It's normal for people to want the "next big thing" -- if and when Apple ships a television, Apple iCar rumors will probably spring up within weeks if not seconds -- but it's just as normal for Apple to follow a far saner, and more measured product strategy.

Source: Wall Street Journal

Rene Ritchie

Editor-in-Chief of iMore, co-host of Iterate, Debug, Review, The TV Show, Vector, ZEN & TECH, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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There are 4 comments. Add yours.

Dev from tipb says:

There are already multiple ways to make a "decoupled brain box" other than the linked blog post, including the industry standard Mobile High Definition Link [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mobile_High-Definition_Link ]. Several TV manufacturers include this port, and a few companies, like Roku [ http://allthingsd.com/20121022/rokus-new-streaming-stick-for-tvs-lets-yo... ] have shipped products using them.

Apple is notably *not* part of the MHL consortium -- mostly Japanese set manufacturers -- which fits with Apple's pattern, since they tends to avoid industry standards when they feel they can make something more tightly integrated on their own.

However, unless Apple starts manufacturing their own TV sets, they are going to run up against partnership issues. The big TV makers are already supporting MHDL, and, while Apple certainly has the brand appeal and money to persuade some manufacturer to also support an Apple interface, it would be an engineering add-on for the manufacturer, not a primary focus, and some of them -- namely Samsung, and perhaps SONY -- likely never will.

Apple could manufacture its own set of screens and "brain box," but doing so they will run up against price constraints very, very quickly. A 55" MDHL-equipped TV is about $900 already, and, with a $100 Roku stick, you have a "smart tv" for $1000 where you can swap out display or brain whenever you wish. Already, other companies are offering similar "brains" for $50, and, as MHDL ports become more of a commodity, the price of the set will drop, too. The point is that if Apple makes a decoupled dumb screen, they have to wade into very competitive waters.

The obvious retort is that the current crop of MHDL products have serious limitations, and that Apple will do it better than these other guys. They probably will. But without a quantum leap -- say, AppleTV goodness *plus* all the content deals set-top boxes have, a separate Herculean effort -- it may not be enough.

I'd never count Apple completely out of it, though, and I would love to see them try. MHDL may wind up like DNLA -- a great standard in theory that ends up failing outside of the geek market in practice, allowing Apple to swoop in with its non-standard-but-well-executed AirPlay. Even if Apple falls short, however, they would likely give the MHDL manufacturers, not to mention the providers like the Comcasts and Time Warners of the world the kick in the ass they need for their own products.

striatic says:

"The point is that if Apple makes a decoupled dumb screen, they have to wade into very competitive waters."

i've heard that a lot and it is a good point but i wonder if apple couldn't actually win outright on price.

or tie, at least.

then let superior branding and user experience take them the rest of the way as they usually do.

iDonev says:

The two-piece set (screen+box) doesn't sound all that elegant to me.
I'd love if Apple made the "brains" of the TV into a very thin, rectangular swappable module built on the side of the TV itself. Think of it as a SIM tray or a floppy drive that aligns perfectly and when inserted you couldn't spot it if you didn't know it was there.

Dev from tipb says:

I could see Apple doing this -- it really is just hiding the box inside the TV housing for a cleaner look. I am surprised the MHDL crowd has not done this, actually, especially since the spec allows any type of connector housing or even pin configuration, but I guess that is the type of thing that is easier to control when you know beforehand the size of the box you need to hide, like Apple would.