Apple HDTV: Much Ado About Possibly Nothing

Amid the years-long fascination about whether Apple will introduce an integrated HD television, there’s one critical question that gets short shrift: How much will it matter?

My take: Beyond stealing some market share -- in a flat-to-declining category with razor-thin margins -- from higher-end manufacturers like Samsung and Sony, an Apple HDTV would have little to no effect on the larger TV ecosystem. (See Behind Apple's TV Mystery and Apple Tries to Enter a Market It's Taken TiVo 10-Plus Years to Crack.)

Currently Foxconn Technology Group, working with Sharp, is developing yet another prototype design for an Apple television, the Wall Street Journalreported. Even after years of building TV prototypes, the project is still in the “early stage of testing,” according to one of the Journal’s anonymous sources.

Apple CEO Tim Cook, in a rare interview last week (probably aimed at driving holiday sales of iPads and other products), told NBC News’ Brian Williams that TV remains “an area of intense interest. I can't say more than that."

Well, that’s cool -- I’m intensely interested in TV, too.

Despite regular predictions by Wall Street types that Apple will storm into the HDTV market, the company may ultimately decide that the costs of building such a product outweigh any benefits.

What could Apple do with a full-blown TV that it can’t already do with its $99 hockey puck set-top (pictured above)? Let’s consider the possibilities:

  • Ultra-high-resolution display: Unless Apple and its partners are creating some revolutionary new OLED-equivalent display technology that’s relatively cheap, I don’t see this being a standout feature. Besides, there will be a paucity of 4K (Ultra HD) content available for home viewers for the near future.
  • Next-gen input technologies: Voice, gesture or motion controls? Eh. These wouldn’t be game-changers in my mind. They’re neat party tricks but I don’t think they’re knock-down-the-doors features. Give me mind control and you have my attention.
  • TV content bundle: This is where it could get interesting. (Of course, Apple could try to do with the current set-top box, but a pay-TV package would make more sense if it's stitched into the TV from the get-go.) However, Apple’s been down this road before in trying to finagle subscription VOD deals and come away frustrated. The only super-disruptive move Apple could make would be to (very expensively) launch a “virtual MSO” service -- all your TV and entertainment content, available from the Cupertino Dream Factory. All it takes is money (and the willingness of programmers to go outside the MVPD club), but even with Apple’s cash reserves it would be a costly bet. Apple also would potentially be stymied by broadband providers’ shift toward bandwidth caps and usage-based pricing.
  • Advanced search: All your TV and video content searchable from one place? TiVo already provides search across TV, VOD and over-the-top content, and universal search is a major thrust of Google TV (which has been met with a resounding "so what" to date). Meanwhile, pay TV operators -- like Comcast with its Xfinity X1 product -- are creating better ways to find and watch TV.
  • [UPDATE] Cloud DVR: One reader suggested that an Apple HDTV could provide (unlimited?) network-based DVR storage, similar to the services pitched by Aereo and Boxee TV. Again, the Apple TV set-top could be used to enable this today. The thorny issue that remains is Apple's ability to access cable TV, either directly or via an MVPD. And again, TiVo already offers multituner DVRs with tons of storage, and MSOs are introducing six-tuner DVRs.

I’ll certainly be watching what, if anything, Apple does next in this space. But I won’t be holding my breath.

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