Predicting an Apple TV Set

Rumors that Apple is developing its own TV set, distinct from the Apple TV set-top box, have been persistent for the last couple of years. Over the past few days, some commentators not prone to hype or hyperbole have indicated that they also believe Apple is getting ready to release their own stand-alone TV within the next year or so. I’m not convinced, but I also enjoy speculating about what Apple might include if they were to build a TV.
Primarily, I’m skeptical because of how Apple does business. Generally, Apple will enter a market if it can make substantial improvements over current technology or service. The iPhone represented a total shift in how we think about phones and portable electronics, and the iPad created an entirely new product category. iTunes revoluntionized how people buy music. The Mac has been innovative both in hardware and software for decades.

There’s a lot of room for improvement in the current state of TV technology, but a lot of it is out of Apple’s hands. Most of what’s terrible about TV today has to do with getting content into the TV and the companies that provide that content. Specifically, I’m thinking about cable companies. Most people get TV service from a cable company, and that usually means using a cable company’s set-top box and the crappy software that comes with it. Barring some kind of far-reaching deal with cable companies, which strikes me as wildly unlikely, Apple isn’t in a position to change how TV programming is delivered, and without that, their ability to change the game is very limited.

There’s also the screen to consider. In the past couple of years, Apple has vastly improved display technology by introducing high-density Retina displays on the iPhone and iPad, and they seem poised to do the same on Macs. Though it would be challenging to produce at such large sizes, I’m sure a Retina display will eventually be feasible on a TV as well. The problem is that none of the content people watch on TV exists at such high resolutions. We’ve only just completed a transition to HD screens, and Retina displays would be yet another huge step up in resolution. It strikes me as very unlikely that anbody is going to shoot movies or TV at Retina-level resolution any time soon. Compounding the problem, current movies and TV shows would look worse on a Retina TV, because the high-resolution screen would show all their flaws. It’s safe to say we won’t be seeing a Retina TV in the near future, from Apple or anyone else.

Of course, there are some areas in which the experience could be improved, but they’ve already addressed a lot of those with the Apple TV set-top box. Movies and TV shows are available through Apple TV, as well as a growing number of services like Netflix. Of course, there’s room for growth: the video content library on iTunes could be much larger, and at present there’s no way to watch most live programming like news or sports. But all of that is something Apple could address through software updates to the existing Apple TV and new contracts with media companies. With the current Apple TV selling well, there just doesn’t seem to be enough to gain for Apple to build it’s own stand-alone TV set.

If Apple were to build a TV, however, there are two technologies I imagine they’d highlight. The first is FaceTime, using an integrated camera built into the TV. Almost all of Apple’s devices now support FaceTime, and it’s easy to imagine a marketing campaign centered on making video calls from the couch in your living room. The second technology is Siri. Imagine being able to ask your TV a quick question like “Is there a new episode of Mad Men this week?” It’s not hard to see the appeal. Both ideas sound useful and practical, but I don’t think they’re enough to push Apple over the line from tinkering with a TV set to actually shipping one.

To my mind, the more likely scenario is that Apple will unveil a new version of the OS behind the Apple TV set-top box (which itself is just a modified version of iOS) that allows more involved and open app development. There have already been some rumors on this point, and the number of “apps” on Apple TV has steadily increased over time. Rather than deal with the hornet’s nest that is the cable industry, apps could enable content providers to start bypassing cable companies altogether. It wouldn’t be a revolutionary change right away, but it could be the start of one.

One way or another, it seems likely we’ll know more after the WWDC keynote on June 11.