Rumours have been circulating for the past year that Apple is working on an HDTV. It makes the discussion of this subject difficult and the headline of this column confusing, because Apple decided to call its set-top box the Apple TV. How can Apple make an Apple TV when it already has an Apple TV that's not a TV? Let's recognise the naming confusion and just look at what the company might announce in the home cinema world.
Apple is not going to release an Apple-branded TV set. It will, however, announce a new Apple TV. The former, the thing that won't happen, is Apple TV in the sense of an HDTV made by Apple. The latter, the thing that almost certainly will happen, is Apple TV in the sense of the Apple TV product.
The HDTV rumours have been floating around for a long time, and they've been more or less unfounded. In fact, rumours have been too generous. It's been HDTV speculation. Apple has done so well with tablets, smartphones, and all-in-one computers that it only makes sense that the company would work on the other big technology purchase of most households: HDTVs. It's a nice thought, but it's very unlikely for a number of reasons.
First, Apple has shown little interest in the cinematic aspect of home entertainment. It made the Apple TV and has given it incremental updates, but that's the only concession it has made to couch-based, big-screen media consumption. The iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad all have emphasized putting your media (purchased through Apple) in your pocket or bag. The company might expand its Apple TV product, but it's shown no interest in big screens or sound systems.
Look at AirPlay. Apple made a wireless audio technology that lets you stream music from your Apple device to an AirPlay speaker. It doesn't actually make AirPlay speakers. It lets other companies use the technology and do the work of actually making the speakers, and keeps its sights focused on accessing and playing content. The Apple TV works under a similar principle, accessing and letting you play content but not actually showing it on a big screen or playing it through speakers. If it's not in your hands or on a desk, Apple won't display or otherwise directly output it.
Second, Apple has been focused on high-resolution screens, and HDTVs can't support that. Unlike monitors, smartphones, and tablets, HDTVs only work under a specific set of resolutions. That resolution currently maxes out at 1,920 x 1,080 HD. It's possible to have a higher resolution display and use higher resolution media, but there is no standardisation for it and no consumer media available at that resolution. Blu-rays, high-definition cable, video game consoles, they all peak at 1,080p currently. Apple would have to explain why its new, premium, Apple-branded HDTV is lower resolution than its Thunderbolt Display (27in), Macbook Pro with Retina Display (15in) or even new iPad (10in). Remember when 1,920 x 1,080 was considered super-sharp and perfect for big screens? Not by Apple's standards, and the contrast would be jarring.
Third, the market is oversaturated. Dozens of HDTV manufacturers make HDTVs of all sizes, prices, and features, and there isn't a readily apparant hook for Apple to get into the market. The iMac got big because of its design. The iPod got big because of its interface. The iPad got big because of its design and interface. HDTVs aren't as complicated as computers or Byzantine as pre-iPod MP3 players, and the major brands offer relatively intuitive, simple interfaces and loads of online services built into their HDTVs. Unless Apple can come up with a big selling point, any HDTVs it makes will blend into the market.
The other, more substantiated rumour, is that Apple is working on a DVR of sorts. While it seems outlandish on the surface, this actually makes perfect sense and is likely the Apple TV product we'll see next month. There are a few compelling reasons why.
First and most obviously, Apple has been making inroads with networks to add their content to Apple TV. Apple already has its own large library of content from studios and cable companies as piecemeal downloads, and already offers streaming services like Netflix, which raises the question: what does Apple want? It doesn't want to simply sell shows as they come out as downloads. It wants to offer a sort of cloud-based DVR system, streaming shows live or with very short delay like most set-top boxes. It's the one approach to content delivery Apple hasn't tried with the Apple TV yet.
Second, Apple is one of the few companies that can do it. It's in a unique position where it has a lot of clout with content providers and is as active on the entertainment distribution side as it is on the technology side. Cable companies are very leery about adding content, especially content that can replace cable service, to products made by tech companies because there isn't much in it for them. With Apple's weight and power in the digital distribution market, it could potentially get the cable-like content access it needs for a service to work.
Third, the Apple TV has been stagnating. The newest version, while still very good, is just a 1,080p capable version of the previous Apple TV. Apple seems to be settling into the pattern of an incremental upgrade one year, a major upgrade the next, and that means the Apple TV is due. When it's already being squeezed by streaming media boxes like Roku and cable company-issued set-top boxes like those from Virgin Media, it needs a big upgrade and now's the time for it.
That's my prediction. We'll see in September, but I'm certain that when Apple lifts the curtain during its presentation, it won't unveil a 40in screen.
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