Taking Apple TV beyond a hobby

Jan Dawson / March 6th, 2014

Apple’s TV device made the headlines again this past week when Tim Cook mentioned at the annual shareholder event that it was a billion-dollar business for the company in the last fiscal year. Apple subsequently made clear that this included content as well as hardware sales connected with Apple TV. Though Tim Cook made clear that such numbers make it a little harder to describe it as a mere hobby, it’s still a tiny fraction of Apple’s overall revenues. It’s likely that the Apple TV in its current iteration (the small black puck) has sold around 20 million units in total at this point, at $99 a pop. To put that in context, consider that Apple hasn’t sold fewer than 20 million iPhones in a single quarter since 2011, and that it routinely sells that many iPads each quarter. The Apple TV generated under 1% of Apple’s revenues in the last fiscal year. At this rate, Apple is still selling two to three times as many Macs each quarter as it is Apple TVs.

Why won’t the Apple TV take off in the same way as Apple’s two biggest products? The biggest single reason is that, although it serves three useful functions, it doesn’t solve a fundamental issue in the category in the same way as the iPhone and iPad do. What is the fundamental issue in the TV category? Consumers want single-input, single-interface access to all their video content, and instead are presented with having to switch devices, inputs and apps to get from one show to the next. The things they want to watch are spread across traditional television services from cable, satellite and telco (CST) providers, online subscriptions like Netflix and Amazon Instant Video, free, ad-funded services like Hulu and networks’ own apps and websites, and pay-per-use services like iTunes, Amazon Instant Video and Vudu. There are apps dedicated to helping you figure out which of your many services might carry the particular show you want to watch – that’s how bad things are.

Apple TV does now carry lots of apps which allow you to watch a variety of content without switching inputs on your TV, but that’s only a partial solution. You’re still having to hop between apps, with no universal search to allow you to locate shows across them (unlike Roku). But there are other hassles too – people still have to maintain multiple subscriptions and authenticate themselves to the various apps they want to use. Apple has simplified this somewhat by allowing customers to subscribe to Netflix and other services through their Apple ID. But the authentication process you have to go through to watch HBO Go, the Disney channels and other TV Everywhere content is a significant hassle. Entering usernames and passwords on any TV device is a pain in the neck, and having to do it repeatedly is even worse. The ideal scenario in the current environment would be connecting your Apple ID to your CST provider ID and then having it automatically authenticate you across all your apps – something it sounds like Apple might have been trying to accomplish as part of its talks with Time Warner Cable.

Though adding universal search and one-time authentication would represent progress, it would be progress of a very incremental kind, leaving consumers with many of the existing hassles they deal with today, and not solving the fundamental fragmentation in the TV space. It would leave the Apple TV without a comprehensive live TV offering (beyond the specialized sports channels it offers today). That was likely the major focus of the Time Warner Cable talks, which are obviously now unlikely to come to fruition. But that, too, would have represented a short-cut to what has to be the end game for Apple in this space: offering a full-service TV subscription offering that would combine traditional live linear broadcasting with on-demand viewing of both recent and back-catalog TV shows and movies. That kind of offering would be truly disruptive in the way the iPhone and iPad were before, and would finally make the Apple TV a compelling offering, truly differentiated in the market and offering something really unique: a single-input, single-interface, single-account TV service.

Besides goosing Apple TV sales, this would help Apple in a couple of other ways too. One of the reasons why investors are so easily spooked when it comes to Apple, and why its valuation always seems way out of whack with its performance, is that its business model relies on huge, roughly yearly hits in its two major product categories. Annual iPhone and iPad releases have to succeed in a huge way to keep the company’s growth and profit trajectory going. The problem is that there is always the risk – entirely theoretical so far – that one of these hits will turn out to be a dud. Adding the kind of annuity revenue stream an Apple TV service would offer – several hundred dollars per year per customer – would provide the sort of predictable revenue stream that investors like to see, which might offset some of the perceived risk associated with the hardware business.

The other big thing this service would do is reinforce the appeal of the Apple ecosystem, and of an all-Apple portfolio of devices in the home. Many people today combine iPhones with Nexus tablets, iPads with Samsung Galaxy smartphones, and all of the above with a Roku, a smart TV or a Playstation or Xbox for TV viewing. An Apple TV service, available like most of Apple’s other services exclusively on Apple devices, would provide a powerful glue that would stick all those devices together and give consumers very strong reasons to buy only Apple products.

The big questions remanning are whether such a service would actually make any money, and whether it’s even possible for Apple to put such a service together. On the first point, there’s solid evidence that it is possible to make very good margins in this business. The closest parallels to what Apple would offer are the cable networks, since they also acquire content rights and sell them to consumers on a subscription basis, but without the delivery infrastructure that CST providers need. These companies in the US have very good margins, in most cases at or above Apple’s recent levels (these numbers are all specifically for the cable network divisions of these companies):

US cable network marginsAnother company with an analogous business model is Netflix, particularly its US streaming business, which has been generating steadily increasing margins which are now in the mid-20s, just below Apple’s recent levels. While neither Netflix nor the cable networks’ businesses are exact analogies for what Apple would do in this space, there is good evidence here that packaging and delivering high quality video content on a subscription basis can be very profitable.

The bigger challenge is content rights, which is no doubt why we’ve seen many stories over the last several years about Apple trying to acquire them. The kind of bundle of live, recent and back catalog content rights we’re talking about here is unheard of, and Apple would be charting new territory (something it has a good history of doing). But Apple has both the existing audience (Intel’s biggest problem), content relationships, and DRM and other structures in place to reassure content owners that it can make a success of this business. And DISH has reportedly just signed just the sort of deal Apple will need to sign with Disney, already a strong Apple partner, which is promising. However, this remains the biggest challenge to this strategy, and the Time Warner Cable talks may well have been a sign that Apple wanted an interim solution while it works to create the ideal product.

The other thing worth thinking about is broadband providers’ bandwidth caps and their impact on this sort of service. As long as people are only using Netflix and Hulu to supplement traditional CST-provided TV, their bandwidth consumption is likely to stay within the 250GB caps that are starting to be implemented by major broadband providers. But if such a service became the only way a household consumed video, it would significantly increase consumption and might lead to problems.

Overall, the only way I can see for Apple to turn the Apple TV into something more than a hobby is to truly disrupt the TV space, and the way to do that is to launch not a TV set, but a TV service, with Apple TV, iPhone and iPad as different ways of accessing that service. This would finally turn Apple TV into a truly unique product, it would provide a very different kind of revenue for Apple in the form of predictable, recurring monthly subscription fees, and it would cement the Apple ecosystem as a compelling option in consumers’ minds. And this would be a substantial new revenue opportunity for Apple – just those cable networks listed above generated over $70 billion in revenue last year, almost entirely in the US. Given the content relationships Apple already has in many other markets, it could expand the service beyond the US in the coming years, providing a significant ongoing source of revenue growth.

 

Jan Dawson

Jan Dawson is Founder and Chief Analyst at Jackdaw, a technology research and consulting firm focused on the confluence of consumer devices, software, services and connectivity. During his thirteen years as a technology analyst, Jan has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. As such, he brings a unique perspective to the consumer technology space, pulling together insights on communications and content services, device hardware and software, and online services to provide big-picture market analysis and strategic advice to his clients. Jan has worked with many of the world’s largest operators, device and infrastructure vendors, online service providers and others to shape their strategies and help them understand the market. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Jan worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as Chief Telecoms Analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally.
  • Kenny

    The idea of trying to fix the user TV experience with yet another complex TV Box is in my opinion ridiculous.

    in my opinion the only way to fix the TV experience is by turning the user attention away from it, which is more likely to occur with a Chromecast that keep user attention on their smartphones or their tablets instead of a cable box while using their TV as an extension.

    • People want to watch content on the TV, not the phone or tablet, when they’re sitting in front of the TV. Using smartphones or tablets as an adjunct to a TV makes sense, but making them the only way to watch things on the TV is unnecessarily limiting – it means I have to have an extra phone / tablet for my kids to use if they ever want to watch a show without me. That’s an awfully expensive remote. The Apple TV and Chromecast (and increasingly Roku) are demonstrating that there’s some value in casting content from smartphones and tablets, but it’s far from the only way people will want to watch things, and most people will want to interact directly with the TV most of the time.

      • Kenny

        that’s the whole point of my argument
        everything you can do with an Apple TV can already be done with regular set top box, so why would i want to pay an extra price to make my living room even more complex with yet another set top box that does not really change the user TV experience.

        the best solution in my opinion will be to implement the Chromecast technology directly in all TV set

        • Did you read the piece? It wasn’t about a new box at all, but about a TV service that could provide a comprehensive video experience on a single box without it having to be “yet another” TV box. Chromecast is proprietary technology (as is Airplay) which means it’s never going to be universal.

          • Kenny

            which will require a complex Set top box including a remote control that in my opinion is not that different from the regular Cable box.

            and how do content provider will finance their TV projects to make money with this Apple service, when the majority of users decide to pay only for Sports channel

  • T.I.W.

    “Apple has…structures in place to reassure content owners that it can make a success of this business.”

    From what I’ve read, the content owners* saw what happened when Apple got into the music business and they’re very leery of something similar occurring with their trade. Apple needs to convince the content providers that *they* will be successful with Apple in their space.

    Additionally I believe TV manufacturers are not eager to add capability to their price-sensitive product that might allow some of the benefits you mention.

    All this presumably explains why Apple hasn’t turned Apple TV into a truly unique product.

    *This includes both the TV networks and the cable companies, and “over the top” content generally comes through cable.

    • It’s a misconception that Apple destroyed the music business – Napster and co. were threatening to destroy it and Apple saved it. The TV and movie companies have been happy to do business with Apple around the iTunes Store. As long as this is priced right, I don’t think they would feel threatened at all (unlike the cable companies, only one of which owns any content today).

      • T.I.W.

        Apple may have saved the record labels from Napster but they also forced them out of their accustomed way of doing business by offering single songs instead of the lucrative CDs that the labels had been selling for so long, and by setting the price for songs at 99 cents when the record people wanted a higher price. In this way Apple took control of the record business by offering the public what it wanted, at the same time that Apple rescued the business from file-sharing.

        In a different space, Apple introduced a cellphone to the market that delighted its users by being designed for them. Previously – as Steve Jobs said – cellphone users hated their phones because Verizon et. al. determined the design of the phones to please themselves, and not the users. In this way the iPhone won the loyalty of customers from the cellular networks, and Apple was able to dictate terms of business to AT&T. As someone said, Apple stole AT&T’s customers.

        It’s these industry-changing accomplishments that the movie and TV content providers have for years been wary of, with good reason; and it’s a very substantial contributor to the difficulty Apple has had in trying to make arrangements with the providers. People have long complained about 500-channel packages imposed on them by the cable companies when they really want a la carte offerings, and there’s a fear that Apple could disrupt an industry a third time by once again putting its customers first. That’s what pundits have been anticipating for some time now.

        • Yep, I can agree with that. Though I’d argue that the cable companies have far more to fear from all this than most content owners. And again, it’s all about the terms. The video content owners are not nearly in as precarious a position as the music industry was, and as a result can afford to hold out for better terms, for better or for worse.

          • Woochifer

            This is probably why you have cable companies forming their own channels. And in the case of Comcast, trying to merge with Time Warner Cable and creating a de facto national cable monopoly. This comes after they already merged with NBC Universal, and now control a movie studio and a broadcasting conglomerate.

          • steve_wildstrom

            The rearrangement of the video content business is happening faster than I expected, but it is still going to take a long time. This is a very complex business, the people are much smarter than the music industry was, and the amount of money to change hands are vast.

            For example, I am convinced that HBO is ready to turn HBO Go into real offering that can be sold over-the-top as soon as the real opportunity is there, especially now that TWC is a fully separate company from Time Warner (and will probably join Comcast-NBC Universal.) And the trouble is that marketing through Comcast and other cable MSOs remains a good business.

          • Woochifer

            Right now, HBO’s US subscriber count is about the same as Netflix, but HBO’s subscribers pay about twice as much per month for their service as Netflix and a lot of that revenue goes to the cable/satellite companies who in turn market and promote the hell out of HBO.

            Time Warner last month broke out HBO’s financials separately for the first time last month, and it shows HBO with higher revenue and higher net income than Netflix. The Reuters article speculated that this action is intended to highlight how HBO stacks up against Netflix (who have a high flying stock compared to Time Warner), and potentially set the table to spin off the HBO unit.

            HBO Go is already sold as a separate standalone service in other countries where HBO does not have a large presence. But, in the US, close to 1/3 of US pay TV households (roughly 90% of all TV households subscribe to pay TV) already subscribe to HBO. I have to wonder how large HBO’s addressable market for a standalone HBO Go service is, given that their subscriber counts have shown only modest growth over the past decade. And would they be in position to charge more for HBO Go than Netflix’s service?

            Since 90% of TV households already have the option of adding HBO and getting HBO Go as part of that service, the real untapped market is that minority that either does not subscribe to pay TV or own a TV. Cord cutters would also be part of the mix, but I’m not convinced that cord cutting is anything beyond a tech blog pipe dream for the short-term at least.

            The real incentive for HBO would be if viewers shift away from pay TV services in a big way, because right now they have a very cozy arrangement with the cable/satellite providers. HBO provides the feed and keeps its service exclusively on cable/satellite, and the cable/satellite providers do the marketing and collect the subscription fees on HBO’s behalf. You’re right in that TWC merging with Comcast would remove the internal conflict of interest that kept HBO tied in with the cable industries’ agenda. So, it remains to be seen how much HBO wants to push the envelope with streaming. They have the platform, but how much stomach do they have for potentially disrupting themselves?

      • Woochifer

        A lot of factors contributed to the music industry’s decline — PBS’ documentary “The Way The Music Died” aired a decade ago, but it still has by far the best explanation of the perfect storm that engulfed the music industry. Illegal downloading was a contributing factor, but far from the only one.

        However, Apple’s role was that the rise of media players enabled and fueled the demand for P2P downloading. Without illegal downloads and the huge digital file libraries that they helped create, the iPod would not have had nearly as widespread an adoption as it did. The introduction of the iTunes Music Store provided the music industry with a new revenue source, but it’s really a drop in the bucket compared to what the industry had at its peak.

        One could argue that the music industry grew in a way that was unsustainable — riding the wave created by adoption of the CD format, and the steady stream of top selling artists and new music genres that started in the 80s and grew into the 90s. Recall that the music industry was also close to collapse in the early-80s when it faced new competition from video games; and the music itself had dug into a creative crisis, with the collapse of disco and increasingly formulaic arena rock. The debut of MTV (which back then actually played music), a new generation of artists, and the rise of portable tape players helped dig the industry out.

        Then came the emergence of the CD, which was the most lucrative cash cow the industry ever saw. Demand for CDs was so great that record companies transferred their music libraries as quickly as they could, as baby boomers repurchased entire music collections so they could hear their favorite artists without the familiar pops and clicks of vinyl.

        But, this also created a false sense of how big the demand actually was, because consumers will not repurchase their music libraries indefinitely. At some point, the industry will need to sink or swim on the strength of their current artists and new releases, and that’s a scary place right now because no new genres or wave of artists have really caught the public’s imagination in a way that grows the entire industry.

        • I agree with pretty much all of that. None of it really affects how video content owners should see an Apple TV service, though.

  • aardman

    Or they can just buy Comcast.

  • stefnagel

    Apple could sell a serious TV tomorrow successfully if it chose. A real TV with a screen and everything. Not a hobby. Count on it: A wafer thin iMac (which I use as TV now) running iOS on a 4K display is sitting in some Apple lab now.

    Fact: Without a built in display Apple cannot do a serious TV. Apple must control the UX to demand premium prices. And it cannot control the UX without owning the display. So in Apple’s own eyes, TV will be a hobby until they sell it as a display. No matter how many billions it makes off the current device.

    No screen, hobby; screen, serious.

    Additionally, a serious Apple TV will be a computer, not a TV. Just like the iPhone is a computer, not a phone. And the iWatch will be a computer, not a watch.

    Using iTunes, as with the iPod, Apple can put itself in a pull, rather than push position, that is, all the scattered TV stakeholder pieces will squeeze themselves onto an Apple TV. And aren’t we at the point where we can admit that PULL is the only way TV will ever get organized. Apple as strange attractor.

    If Apple can serve apps, shows, images, tunes, games, facetime, and maybe Disney, it’s already ahead of where it began with music. And remember, we are talking about a computer, not a TV. Apple doesn’t do dumb. People keep TVs for 10 years cus’ they cost so much. And cus’ they do so little. Who wants somebody’s old TV? Whereas I pass my iPhones, iPods, and iPads to my kids and grandkids. Gladly received. These are educational, creational, and not just recreational devices.

    Granted, the same folks who buy Dells and Fires today will not buy an Apple TV. They don’t get it. Or they don’t got it. Either way, they have never been part of Apple’s buyer pool. Which will soon number one billion, 1,000,000,000, creditcard carrying members. That’s enough to get a TV off the ground. Ya think?

    So why doesn’t Apple do a real TV? Dunno. But …

    Apple won’t do it until the cost structure allows Apple a shot at selling a TV securing reasonable margins.

    Apple won’t do it until it can capture a “headstart” technology, probably having to do with the screen tech, or resolution at 4K or the camera.

    Maybe, like Claudius, the Roman emperor, Apple is letting “all the poisons that lurk in the mud … hatch out …”

    • I’m totally skeptical on them making a TV set – the UI can be driven by an external box just as easily as the TV itself, especially if it’s the only input, which is what this service would offer. Controlling the plastic and metal behind the screen adds zero benefit to the user or to Apple’s position in the market. And I just don’t see lots of people buying a TV at the sort of premium price Apple would have to charge to avoid the razor-thin margins everyone else makes in this space – add several hundred dollars for Apple’s premium materials and another several hundred for Apple’s margin, and it would price itself way out of the market, without really adding any significant value, because all the differentiation would be in the software.

      • stefnagel

        My head agrees with you; my heart is stuck on the concept. If thin margins are the core issue, I’ll hope that Apple will do what it did with phones. TVs have the same bored, dead eyed, deadend feel that phones did before the iPhone.

        • The 4K screen alone would put it at about $1k today with any sort of decent materials, even at the TV industry’s usual paltry margins. You’d have to significantly up from there to put in premium materials, Apple’s margins and the sort of intelligence that Apple would want to put into it to differentiate it. Look at Best Buy’s website right now – you can’t find a 4K TV under $2000, and most are in the $3-5k range. And there’s really no content for 4K right now, even from Apple. If they did do this, it would be with an HD screen for now, for a combination of keeping the price down and meeting today’s needs.

          • stefnagel

            All true no doubt. But stranger things have happened in Apple history than finding a way through to new screen technologies. When the iPad came out, its price was about half what people guessed.

            Would you buy a TV today that didn’t handle 4K? I wouldn’t.

        • T.I.W.

          I don’t think Apple wants to sell a 50″ piece of glass. Why should they, when the navigational capabilities everyone wants, will be done in software in an Apple set-top box. But then they’ll be going into direct competition with the cable companies, and that’s a steep hill to climb. The cable companies and the content providers are wedded together in a very rewarding dance, they don’t want anybody cutting in, and they’ve got the clout to prevent it.

          • stefnagel

            Search I love this ‘iPro’ concept and want an iMac like it. An Apple TV is not just another pretty piece of glass.

  • chano1

    You certainly love the word ‘offering’, even to the extent of using it twice in more than one sentence. Hint: there is such a thing as a Thesaurus.
    Otherwise, a good article.

  • Woochifer

    Content is king. If Apple can acquire enough of it and redeploy content in a new and compelling way, then they might be onto something. But, the TV landscape is littered with beachheads that the content and service providers have secured for themselves, which collectively make any insurgent effort to redefine TV viewing extremely difficult.

    Sports programming is the best example. ESPN basically collects about $4/month in carriage fees from each and every basic pay TV subscriber in America. They have also gone out and acquired the rights to numerous marquee events and have alliances with most of the major professional sports leagues. This stranglehold on sports programs allows ESPN to dictate high carriage fees from the providers. In return, the service providers have demanded that ESPN make accommodations to them by putting their streaming content behind a paywall, where only cable/satellite subscribers have full access. Same thing applies with the regional sports networks, which are protected by the blackout restrictions on streaming apps where you can watch any team, so long as it’s not the local team that you most likely want to watch.

    This model has been copied by numerous other content providers, and it all comes down to protecting their business model and the carriage fees that go along with it. The content providers receive the big carriage fees, which in turn pays for their programming. In return, the service providers receive exclusivity by having the streaming content placed behind a wall that only subscribers can access.

    Apple can disrupt this model, but only if they can demonstrate to the content providers that playing ball with them can be just as lucrative as the current arrangement. Or that their current arrangement is falling by the wayside and Apple is the shortest first step down.

    To date, all of the other arrangements, such as Netflix’s recent content deals, have the content providers with the upper hand. And other efforts such as Google TV that tried to scrape someone else’s webfeeds and redirect them into their own platform, have resulted in content providers successfully blockading their programs. Apple has the scale and platform to unify a lot of compelling programming into their own service, but the big question is what shape it will take and what they are willing to pay (and charge) to wrest programming away from the exclusive domain of cable/satellite providers.

    • T.I.W.

      “Apple can disrupt this model, but only if they can demonstrate to the content providers that playing ball with them can be just as lucrative as the current arrangement.”

      You are so right. Two essential facts: (1) content is king, and (2) the content providers (and their bedfellows the cable companies) control it. Everything else is secondary to that reality.

      • jfutral

        “(1) content is king, and (2) the content providers (and their bedfellows the cable companies) control it.”

        Sadly, somehow in that truthful equation, it is the content _creators_ who keep getting screwed. Not quite as badly in TV land as in music, but they are usually the ones who feel the financial pinch first when people start barking about expense.

        But I am not so convinced (with the obvious exception of Comcast) that content providers are necessarily happy about their cable company bedfellows. I think if they could go over the top tomorrow without putting current contracts and negotiations at risk they would dump cable companies in a heart beat. That the same cable companies are also largely also the ISPs doesn’t help that either.

        Joe

    • Kenny

      the only way for Apple i believe to Disrupt the TV business is by creating a mechanism to finance content creation just as Netflix or even to some extent Google with YouTube

      • Woochifer

        I gotta disagree here. Content creation is more of a hedge against rising program acquisition costs, and the net result is further fragmentation of the TV landscape in which everybody uses exclusive content to wall off a protected subscription-based fiefdom for themselves. The streaming TV market is reshaping into the HBO/Showtime/Starz premium cable scenario all over again, where every provider produces its own programs and carves out exclusive access to certain studios’ higher demand titles (e.g., HBO with Warner and Fox; Showtime with Paramount; Starz with Disney and Sony). I just don’t see Apple jumping into content creation.

        If you look at Netflix, their movie library is actually shrinking because they can no longer afford to keep paying for accelerated streaming access to new releases and deep movie catalogs. They now have to more selectively pick and choose which film libraries they want to provide to their subscribers, and having something like “House of Cards” and their documentary series is more of a subscriber retention move to keep the focus off of the titles that have been disappearing from their program selections.

        Apple’s disruptive potential is that they have the infrastructure, pre-existing content deals, and deep pockets to unify the fragmented streaming TV landscape. Imagine a single service that integrates the live programming dominated by cable/satellite, on-demand and live TV series from the broadcast networks, a movies on-demand library like Netflix, AND iTunes purchases and rentals for new releases. THAT is the holy grail of TV, and IMO Apple is the only player in the industry currently positioned to deliver anything close to that.

  • Bryan Woodruff

    Take Apple TV put it in that beautiful I mac 5k that is what can make Apple TV thy need to march to networks let people buy a season just like cable company’s like if I wand just say discovery channel let me buy it or the show and not after air broadcast of

  • Bryan Woodruff

    Apple needs to show the networks they have it they did with iTunes and mp3

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