Apple Will Re-Invent Television

Ben Bajarin / December 2nd, 2011

There is re-invigorated conversation around Apple and its Apple TV efforts in light of Steve Jobs’s comments to Walter Isaacson that he has finally cracked the TV interface. And now again with recent Wall St Analysts voicing their conviction that 2012 will be the year of Apple TV. We all know Apple wants a play in the television arena. Apple TV is still a hobby to them but at some point in time Apple TV will become a business and a healthy one at that.

Much of what is happening around the web, and with other pundits, feels very similar to the time prior to Apple launching the first iPhone and fundamentally re-inventing the smartphone. In fact my father provided the media with a quote about the first iPhone that circulated widely. Rather than call Apple’s first iPhone a smartphone he called it a “brilliant phone.” I found that quote fitting.

In the year leading up to the first launch there were mockups, hype, rumors, speculation, skepticism, optimism, and then one day it was unveiled and none of the hype could do it justice. It helped us re-imagine what a pocket computer should be and I would argue Apple continues to do so with each new iPhone.

Predicting exactly what the disruptor is proves more difficult than knowing which areas of the industry are ripe for disruption. Television is ripe for disruption and I believe Apple will be the one to do it. So rather than predict how, I would rather point out where some of the opportunities may lie.

So with all that in mind when the time is ready Apple will unveil to us their next greatest product creation and none of the current buzz will do it justice. For the simple reason that I expect nothing less from Apple.

The TV is an incredibly important “screen” in the lives of many consumers and it will become a key battleground for many companies. The TV experience has not changed much, with the exception of the DVR, since color. The TV screen itself is dying to become smarter, run software, become more personal–and even more–the television experience itself is stale and dated and in desperate need of disruption. Tim brings this out in his column stating that TV is one of the industries Apple will disrupt at some point in time.

What Apple TV Will Not Be and What it May Be
As I have read much of what is being hyped and speculated about with Apple TV, I have to point out what Apple TV will not be. It will not be just a simple streaming service that delivers content a different way than through the cable or satellite providers. It may include elements of that but it will not be focused around that. As we know the cable TV networks and service providers have an incredible amount of power, out-dated business models, and licensing agreements still in place from the 50’s. They are also completely inept when it comes to technology. We have pointed out the massive challenge working with these content companies has become.

Re-inventing the TV experience has to be more than just TV programming. Re-inventing the TV will require turning the TV into a platform to deliver rich content, new software, interactive programming and more. The opportunity is to turn the TV into a “platform” similarly the way PCs, smartphones, and tablets are platforms.

This will require new hardware, new software and a host of other things. I still remain skeptical that Apple actually wants to build and ship a piece of glass as an integrated TV set, as the only solution. If buying a new TV is required for the new Apple TV I think it would be a mistake. Consumers hold on to TVs for a 5yr average now and such a strategy would lock out a number of potential customers due to the lack of desire to buy a new TV. I find the set-top-box strategy to be a more relevant strategy and one that can keep up with the pace of innovation. As much as I am skeptical of the need for Apple to ship and build a fully Apple TV integrated TV set, the notion that current display hardware is not sufficient to realize Apple’s vision for TV is the strongest case.

That being said I fundamentally believe innovation within TV set hardware is still needed. I will give you one example.

In many R&D labs of TV manufacturers, new aspect ratios are being experimented with. One aspect ratio in particular I find interesting is 20×9. You may think to yourself why would I need a 20×9 aspect ration when the current standard is 16×9. There is an interesting answer.

20×9 brings the opportunity to use the outer edges of the display for “other” things than the video. Say for example that I wanted my Twitter feed, or sports scores, or interactive features to co-exist with what I am watching but I don’t want to see my picture in anything less than 16×9. Using the 20×9 aspect ratio would allow the viewer to still watch an unaltered video experience but use the outer areas of the display for other relevant content. Things like apps, news streams, and anything else we can come up with to complement the TV viewing experience. Of course these side bars can be turned off as needed but also usable as needed.

That is one simple way new hardware can be created that change how we experience TV today and re-shape it in an entirely new way.

John Gruber brings out some interesting thoughts and he outlines how apps are the new channels and using voice to fetch relevant data. Jean-Louise Gasse in his Monday Note builds upon Gruber’s thoughts and adds how an ever-increasing amount of people are using things like iPads to simultaneously watch TV and use their “other” smart screens like tablets and smartphones to add to their TV experience.

What makes the TV screen interesting is that it is not a personal device or screen. At least not in the same way that our smartphones and PCs and tablets are personal. The TV is more of a shared or social screen. Therefore our relationship with it is very different. Because of that it presents and interesting challenge where using our personal devices to enhance the shared TV screen experience may be very interesting.

Perhaps the future version of Apple TV will be all of these things. New innovations in the TV set using new aspect ratio’s or screen technology, combined with using other smart devices to enable a much more holistic, personal, and interactive experience.

The most important first step will be to turn the TV screen into a platform. When this happens we will see innovation come from software developers, service providers and yes the content industry. Opening the door for software developers to create compelling new experiences on the big screen, is perhaps the biggest and most disruptive opportunity.

I am hesitant to speculate knowing that whatever we come up with won’t even be close, at least I hope, to what Apple shows us–someday. Who knows when it will happen it could still be years away but I can’t wait until it is ready. In time Apple will not just show us a smart TV they will show us a brilliant TV and in the process re-invent TV.

Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio
  • Shaun

    “Consumers hold on to TVs for a 5yr average now and such a strategy would lock out a number of potential customers due to the lack of desire to buy a new TV”.

    Most people I know only change their computer every 3 – 5 years, so what’s the difference?

    • Anonymous

      There is a different buying psychology with communal / shared screens like a TV. Because they are not quite as personal as a smartphone, tablet or traditional PC the upgrade cycles can go much longer. I was also using 5yr as a aggressive number. Folks like my colleagues at IDC and Gartner will say its more like 7 yrs that they hold on to TVs.

      If the price is right it could be interesting but again the last two years many folks got new big screens, so the upgrade cycle is not ideal right now. That is why I think the set top box strategy can not be abandoned.

      • Shaun

        Interesting debate. However I think Apple would make more profits and would gain greater control over the user by switching to a proper TV rather than a set top box. Apple wants to keep you inside their walled garden eco system rather than sell you a set top box that you have to plug into a TV from Samsung/Sony/etc.

        Apple has an uncanny ability to make their products so desirable that you have to upgrade to the latest model every few years whether you want to or not so maybe they can change that 7 year dynamic.

  • Michal

    hasn’t android already turned tv into platform with google tv ?

    • Anonymous

      There is a lot more to creating a platform than just bringing apps. Samsung similarly has connected TVs with an app store. That alone does not solidify a platform, or at least one that is taken seriously and can be a mass market success.

      Again smartphones and some feature phones for that matter were platforms before Apple re-invented it… Food for thought.

    • Anonymous

      If you are attempting to use that argument Michal then you could say that Microsoft’s 1995 WebTV initiative already tried and failed that. The problem is that even with Apple selling the AppleTV as a “hobby” it has probably done more units than all of the manufacturers of GoogleTV managed to sell in its lifetime.

      The truth is that GoogleTV cost Logitech to write-off 34 million bucks this year and they are not convinced to return to the team after a lot of broken promises.

      The point being is that the computer inside the TV idea really doesn’t work. These days most people watch TV with a second screen in their hands or on their laps. Whether that be a phone, a tablet or a laptop of some kind.

      Perhaps we should see what Apple brings to the table rather than go for the knee-jerk response “Google already didi that”. A bit like everyone claiming that they did Siri first… Cosmetically true maybe but if you try the “we did it first” machines you see that they are actually completely different.

  • David

    Of this we can be sure: it will be so easy to skip ads on tivoed shows it won’t be funny, which will add to the pressure on content providers to license the content iTunes style.

  • Don’t rely on the Wall Street Journal’s saying “2012 will be the year of Apple TV”. Once upon a time they editorialized on Apple’s demise. They don’t have a clue….. anymore than we do.

  • Anonymous

    The issue I see with US TV is that most of it is banal, dumbed-down and organized around the next opportunity to pitch some advert to the viewer. There’s lots of it, though, have to admit that. Indeed, someone once characterized it as ‘400 channels and nothing to watch’.

    Even that golden lighthouse of all that’s best in American culture, NPR, has regrettably slipped under the control of commerce, with ‘messages from your sponsor’ barely distinguishable from naked adverts.

    Since on TV, content is king, and since content is almost entirely driven by advertising, and since advertising believes the more eyes the better, then it seems inevitable that the vast majority of content will continue to follow the present model, where the material is massaged to meet the lowest common denominator of taste and then chopped up and served as the filler between longer and longer ad ‘breaks’. If anyone comes up with a model whereby the user can be spared the ads but still see the content, do you imagine for one moment the content providers will allow this?

    If Apple can solve this issue, I for one will nominate them to rule the known Universe in perpetuity.

    • Rich

      “If anyone comes up with a model whereby the user can be spared the ads but still see the content, do you imagine for one moment the content providers will allow this?”

      They’ve already allowed it, at least in the US. It’s called Amazon Instant Video.

      • Except that what is available through Amazon instant Video or Netflix Watch Instantly is a very small subset of TV content. What the content owners will need is a revenue source from distributors (i.e., Apple) or viewers that replaces ad revenue. As newspapers, magazines, and others have found, this is not easy. But I am more hopeful in this case because 1) consumers have a demonstrated willingness to pay for video content and 2) movie and TV studios, networks, and sports leagues have much tighter control of their content than newspapers and magazines.

  • Cybernautone

    Good thoughtful analysis. I would argue that resolution will be a differential characteristic. Think retina display on a larger scale. This fits with apple’s current approaches to displays (embedded hardware exceleration). It only makes sense for Apple to extend their superior resolution technology and would give them a competitive advantage.

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