Apple bites into TV

Whenever it arrives and whatever form it takes, will Apple's hotly expected iTV kickstart the television market and revolutionize the way we consume content? Will the company be able to apply what it learned in music and movies to the decidedly different — and infinitely more complex — world of television?

As the rumours swirl, let's get something straight: Apple already has a television-related offering. It's called Apple TV, and the small-ish Mac Mini-like device, which in its current form streams iTunes-obtained content to a conventional television, was first introduced in January 2007.

Unfortunately, the set-top product has been largely ignored from the moment it was announced at the Macworld 2007 keynote, as a little smartphone known as the iPhone bowed the very same day and rendered Apple TV a permanent footnote. Later that year, Steve Jobs called Apple TV a "hobby", and a year later admitted the company had fallen into the same trap as other vendors in failing to figure out how to apply an Internet-focused mindset to decidedly old-school TV.

"No one has succeeded yet," Jobs said during his 2008 Macworld keynote. "We tried with Apple TV. Apple TV was designed to be an accessory for iTunes and your computer. That's not what people wanted."

Exactly two years ago, then-COO and current CEO Tim Cook echoed Jobs's perspective, saying the TV market was still eclipsed by exploding demand for computers, smartphones and tablets. Still, he left the door open.

"There's people — and I'm one of those — that they're avid Apple TV users, and so, because their gut says something there, we're continuing to invest in this," Cook said at the 2010 Goldman Sachs technology conference. "But today it's just a hobby."

Apple TV views changing

That view, both inside and outside the company, is changing. In the Walter Isaacson-penned biography published just after his death, Jobs said he had finally figured it out.

"I'd like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use. It would be seamlessly synced with all your devices and with iCloud. It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine," he told Isaacson. "I finally cracked it."

While Apple isn't saying precisely what the final product will look like — analysts expect it to be a television set infused with a Siri-like voice recognition interface and a mobile-enabled, networked operating system — it's clear it will focus more attention on the space than recent attempts by competing vendors to advance the TV state-of-the-art. Sets based on Google TV and Intel's Smart TV standard have met with limited success thanks to clunky interfaces, a lack of universal hardware and software standards, carrier and content owner fears over licensing and consumer hesitance to buy potentially obsolete technology. Until the dust settles, consumers are just as happy to buy cheaper, simpler panels and put up with whatever their carrier or big box store wants to sell them.

Apple's anticipated offering enters a space that's already claimed a number of high-profile victims — Logitech bailed on Google TV after losing $100 million thanks to dismal sales of its Revue device, while vendors like Sony have slashed prices to boost demand amid mediocre reviews.

Apple's TV conundrum: How to streamline

Still , the industry's recent history isn't dampening carriers' enthusiasm for an Apple-branded solution. The Globe & Mail reported earlier this month that both Rogers and Bell had obtained iTV prototypes for testing, and were competing against each other for the right to bring it to market. Whoever wins gets to leave behind ill-matched set top boxes and software from various vendors that are a pain to install and maintain. The resulting hodge podge of devices and remotes limits carriers' ability to seamlessly deliver services to net-savvy consumers just as it raises support costs and drags down customer satisfaction ratings.

Apple faced a similar landscape in the music space in 2001: Wildly divergent hardware and software standards for music, an industry that was either unwilling or unable to agree on how to transition from brick-and-mortar retail to online distribution, and consumers who were only too happy to seek out their own illegal sources of content — for example, Napster and Kazaa — in the absence of a viable, cost-effective solution. Its ultimate solution that tightly integrated hardware (iPod), software (iTunes) and an online store broke new ground by giving mainstream consumers an easy-to-use alternative.

Television presents a significantly more daunting challenge for Apple. For one, there are a lot more players, including carriers, local distributors and content owners. They're deeply entrenched, in an industry subject to intense regulatory oversight. The technical, political and logistical challenges make iTunes 1.0 look like child's play, but the same basic approach — get everyone, including studios, to play ball, then wrap it all in integrated hardware, software and online services that don't provoke living room hissy fits — should give iTV, or whatever it's ultimately called, a better-than-even chance of succeeding where giants like Intel and Google have thus far failed. Now where's my remote?

Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist. The opinions expressed are his own. carmilevy@yahoo.ca

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