Why an Apple HDTV is a massive gamble

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CNET Editor

Ty is a journalist with 15 years experience in writing for IT and entertainment publications. He is in charge of the home theatre category for CNET Australia and is also a PC enthusiast. He likes indie music and plays several instruments. Twitter: @tpendlebury

With the release of Steve Jobs' biography this week, it seems that the man's final desire was to build an Apple television.

His biographer, Walter Isacsson, wrote that Jobs had the idea of a simple interface cracked, but then told CNET that the product was not "close at all" and "very theoretical". This hasn't stopped analysts from leaping over each other to pinpoint the TV's launch date — late 2012? Early 2013? — in some kind of "guess the number of jelly beans" competition, especially after the news that the creator of iTunes was heading up a team to produce it. Even The New York Times has chimed in saying that it really is coming, honest.

But is a full-fledged Apple HDTV a good idea? There's been several instances in the past few years of companies pulling out of the TV market — mostly Japanese manufacturers, like Pioneer and Hitachi, pushed out by the cheaper LCD competition coming from the Asian mainland.

Meanwhile, Apple's had a lot of ideas and while most of them have gone on to inform and inspire a whole slew of products, not all of them were well received at the time of launch or successful afterwards. People, including myself, scoffed at the idea of the iPad: "It's a big iPod Touch with no clear usage model," we said. I still believe that's true, yet the iPad has sold like cupcakes (hotcakes are so 2008). And it looks like its protegé, the Kindle Fire, might be just as red-hot.

Apple is a company that has always sought to innovate, but for every iPod and iPhone there are also the forgotten children, like the Newtons and Apple iPod Hi-Fis. Even the Apple TV set-top box has had a sluggish reception, and despite Jobs' enthusiasm at its launch, it's now seen by many as a niche product.

I think an Apple HDTV would also likely be a niche product. And while niche hi-fi thrives, niche TV products don't. Sure, there are occasional Bang & Olufsen and Loewe TVs, but Apple is much more high profile than that. If the Apple HDTV does indeed exist, it would likely be a luxury product along the lines of Samsung's AU$10,000 C9000 ultra-thin LED TV, which despite an overwhelmingly positive reception, simply disappeared; tellingly, there's no correspondingly premium-priced D9000 in Samsung's 2011 range.

Pioneer Kuro

Pioneer Kuro: an exceptionally well-regarded TV, not exactly a profit centre.
(Credit: Pioneer)

The Pioneer lesson

The demise of the Pioneer TV range in the US case should be a warning of "what not to do" to the boys and girls at Cupertino. Here was a company that built an amazing reputation on a premium product, but found they lost more money trying to market and develop it than they could ever recoup in sales. According to one Pioneer representative, the plasma division was only responsible for 14 per cent of the worldwide turnover, yet was the main reason the company hadn't turned a profit in five years. Pioneer jettisoned the plasma business and turned to its more profitable audio and in-car products instead.

Pioneer had many highly regarded plasma products, but still the most fondly remembered and highly regarded (at least in the US) is the Kuro. Indeed, CNET still uses the Pro-111FD as the benchmark against which other TVs are judged. Yet after debuting in 2007, Pioneer's premium TV bounced from in-house production across to Panasonic in 2008 and then Pioneer announced it was getting out of the plasma business in 2009.

Apple has a solid reputation when it comes to image quality: the Mac is the "go-to" device for photographers and designers across the world, and its LED cinema display promises a "viewing experience unlike any other". Any notion that an Apple HDTV wouldn't try to compete against the big guns in terms of image quality should be quickly dispelled. Sony's "Google TV" is a budget screen with a "work in progress" operating system and I can't imagine Apple releasing something like that.

TV as toaster oven

Unfortunately, though, a TV is now increasingly seen as a commodity item like a fridge or a people mover. Mainstream consumers generally want the biggest they can get for the cheapest price. Most Apple products do not fit well into this view; they are well-built, premium items and priced accordingly.

Though Jobs said bringing the simplicity of an iPod to TV was always his vision, an Apple HDTV just seems like the wrong product for these times. Analysts predict we will soon see TVs with integrated cameras allowing Skype conferencing in the home as well as Kinect-based voice and gesture control. Jobs said the TV would have a simple user interface. What is more simple than talking or even waving? Sure, an Apple TV could integrate the Siri voice control from the latest iPhone, and while people are wary of talking to their electronic devices in public, maybe they'd be more comfortable in the privacy of their own lounge rooms.

To succeed, the Apple HDTV needs to do something we don't already anticipate it will do and do it simply. It needs to be one of those ideas that makes you go "of course!"

What would it look like, though? A big iMac? Possibly somewhere between that and the aforementioned ultra-thin Samsung C9000, and, of course, with a nice bright Apple logo in the middle. But by the time this thing comes out, that sort of design will be old hat. Apple would really need to flex its design biceps to catch people's attention, because — at least to judge by Samsung's latest efforts — TV bezels themselves will be non-existent. We envision Apple would partner with either Samsung or Sharp, two of the only LCD manufacturers left, to produce this mythical device.

Will Apple produce a TV? Maybe. Would it be a popular product? Popular in that everyone will talk about it perhaps, but there's no way it could be a volume product. A big, expensive product with great ideas, but that not many people would buy? You've got to wonder why Apple would bother, other than to act as a marketing exercise or as an homage to Steve Jobs. In this way it would become Jobs' own Epcot Center.

Epcot Center

Epcot Center: a US$1.4 billion tribute to Disney's founder, Walt Disney.
(Credit: Disney)


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That Mobile Guy posted a comment   

You seem to forget that the beauty in Apple is the physical product. The brains though is the interface. iTunes is the legacy that will continue to sell iPhones and iPads well into double digit monikers.

What would make an Apple TV different? Embedded iCloud (iTunes), Apple TV and App Store.

iCloud is a no brainer. You get everything on every device. It's already awesome. Add your TV to the mix and convergance is at a level never before seen.

Apple TV may not have taken off as Steve expected it to. Build it into the television though, as it's own channel, (removing the additional box and cable) and people will begin to appreciate it immediately.

And the App store? Again, if your devices are connected why not browse a 50 inch versus a 10 inch? Then, use the 10, or 4 inch, to control the games that you just purchased? Perhaps, as shown in the recent Microsoft video, you download iCal from the App store onto your TV, use the family iPad to update it and give that it's own channel too. All of a sudden everybody in the family knows exactly what's going on, across all of their devices and the TV. Want to see if they are where the calendar says they are? Facetime them from the television, the digital signature on their calendar entry carries their contact details.

So far as driving the TV, any iDevice could do so. What's more, the shows you currently record on you DVR, that stay on your DVR, now come with you on the iPad you have synced to your televsion. I can watch last night's Big Bang Theory on the train instead of having to watch it from my lounge room. My son can take The Simpsons with him on his iPod touch. That might cost them $1.99 in iTunes revenue but it justifies the $1000 increase from an LG to an Apple TV.

(I appreciate that above can be done via a media centre, connected laptop or similar but that's the hard way by comparison. Kind of like using a walkman or browsing the web on a RIM device.)

Ultimately you're looking at television the way everybody else does. Start looking at it like Apple looks at everything they transform and start to imagine what might be. That's what'll make it amazing.

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