Would You Spend Big Bucks on an Apple Television Set?

15Jan13

Online tech journals and blogs are rife with rumors about consumer products that might be coming our way. No other company is the subject of more of these rumors than Apple. For a number of years, there’s been an Apple rumor that just won’t go away: The mythic and soon-to-be-introduced Apple television set.

There are various ideas about what such a device would be like, but pundits seem to think it might resemble a gigantic iMac, a huge ultra-high definition TV sculpted out of stylish aluminum and serving as the center of an Apple-centric home theater system. Media content from iTunes would of course be the primary content delivered, and you’d control it from your iPhone or iPad, possibly through Siri, their voice-activated personal assistant.

Is Apple developing a large-screen television set?

Is Apple developing a large-screen television set?

I could be dead wrong (been there), but I don’t see it happening, at least not yet.

Some tech blogger have already voiced their skepticism. Many have already pointed out that TV sets are a low-margin business. Large flat-panel TV sets are inexpensive enough that even folks with modest incomes often have several of them in their homes. They’ve become like PC computers: high volume, low margin, not much innovation. People pick them up at Target or Wal-Mart.

Other writers have pointed out that Apple already has a device that delivers media content on Apple’s terms: the Apple TV streaming media player. This small device, now in its third generation, works well, is popular, and works with any high-definition set.

The small Apple TV media player has become a popular home theater accessory

The small Apple TV media player has become a popular home theater accessory.

My thinking about why Apple won’t be producing a television set revolves around a couple of concepts that I haven’t seen in other tech blogs. The first of these is the relationship between Apple’s product development and the consumer’s user experience.

The best products Apple has ever produced all share a common trait that I’ll reveal in a bit. First let’s look at the products:

Apple II: The Apple II could be considered the first successful mass-produced microcomputer. It was affordable enough for schools to purchase in large quantities, and for many grade-school kids in the late 70’s and early 80’s, provided their first experience with computer hardware and software.

Macintosh: When the first Mac came around, computer users who had been accustomed to typing in commands to interact with computers could now work with an intuitive graphical interface. It changed forever not only how people interacted with computers, but what they could do with them.

iPod and iTunes: There were digital music players before the iPod, but they were often badly designed, had poor battery life, and, most importantly, provided no easy legal way for the user to obtain music. With the iPod, Apple applied its design skills to create a beautiful, desirable personal possession. Then, with the introduction of iTunes, Apple created a vast online library of legally-obtainable music. This “one-two” punch changed the music industry forever—the digital music player went from being a tool of online piracy to becoming the dominant way people experience music today.

iPhone: In 2006, the most sophisticated smartphone on the market was the Blackberry. It was essentially a tiny PC, shrunk down to phone size, with a correspondingly small screen and keyboard. When Apple designed their smartphone, they didn’t simply shrink down a Macintosh—they invented a new type of computer instead. Touch-based phones are so common today that many don’t remember how revolutionary this was.

ipad: Having changed the mobile phone landscape entirely, Apple took the touch-centric concepts used in the iPhone and brought out the device that is now changing the PC landscape to the point where some tech pundits are talking about the death of the PC for most users.

What do all these products have in common? Each one revolutionized how people interact with technology and the content delivered by that technology. They are products that changed peoples’ expectations. This is the “Apple magic” that fans rave about and Apple’s detractors might refer to as some sort of “magic pixie dust” that casts a sort of spell on fans. Whatever the case, it’s the reason why Apple is the most valuable company on earth.

Getting back to the idea of an Apple TV set, let’s examine what happens when a person watches a television show or movie:

-the user chooses the show she or he wants to watch
-the user presses “play”
-the movie or TV show plays and the viewer watches it
-the user stops the player at the end of the show

That’s it. Now, this can certainly be made to happen on a large, beautifully-designed TV set, but the truth is that for the duration of the show, the experience is essentially one of “watching television,” a user/technology interaction that has remained unchanged for decades. It could be argued that the last really big change in this occurred when the VCR arrived.

So how does Apple apply its “magic” to this experience? For the vast existing library of movies and TV shows available to viewers, they can’t—it’s simply going to be a matter of watching television. I just don’t see Apple venturing into an area where they won’t be able to improve or alter the human/technology interaction in a significant way.

This ties in with another successful Apple trait: they don’t create “me too” products. Apple does its best work when it produces products that customers don’t even realize they want until they see them. People already know what the television and home theater experience is all about.

Apple has learned this the hard way. Anyone remember the iPod Hi-Fi? Introduced in early 2006, this relatively expensive iPod dock/speaker system worked well by all accounts, but never made it big because there were scores of similar products already on the market. It was quietly taken off the market a mere 1 ½ years later, and no one seems to know how many actually sold. From then on, Apple has chosen the path of improving their existing products and only bringing out new products that act as genuine game-changers.

iiPod Hi-Fi. Anyone remember this short-lived Apple product?

iiPod Hi-Fi. Anyone remember this short-lived Apple product?

That’s one argument against an Apple television set. Another one deals with the physical, tactile nature of Apple’s most successful consumer products. These products are made of beautiful materials with flawless surface finishes. They’re made to be held, touched (detractors might say fondled), examined close-up and interacted with via hand gestures and voice commands. How does this translate into a successful Apple TV set, an object that stays in one place, generally several yards away from the user? Where’s the magic in this? (if you’re caressing your television set at home, please don’t tell me about it)

My last point revolves around the “personal statement” aspect of Apple’s most successful products. Carrying around a MacBook Air or an iPad Mini denotes a certain status; Apple fans want to be seen with these artful tech creations. It’s a statement of one’s taste, a form of what’s called “signaling” that indicates your expectations from tech products. I don’t foresee anyone carrying a 46-inch TV set to the local coffee shop to impress others.

That’s why I’m not expecting an Apple TV set anytime soon. I’m sure they’re thinking about it, but Apple isn’t going to introduce a beautiful, premium-priced television set unless they can fundamentally change the television viewing experience in some unforeseen way. When and if it actually happens, I expect it to be something I never expected.

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