Why an Apple television doesn’t make sense (and does)

It appears some sources at Apple have this week indicated to Daisuke Wakabayashi at the Wall Street Journal that Apple is no longer actively working on making a television. This doesn’t surprise me in the least – the project never really made sense to me as I’ve repeatedly written and told reporters over the past several years. It may seem like odd timing, but I thought I’d outline my thoughts as to why this is so, and at the end talk briefly about a couple of reasons why it does make sense.

Cost, margins and differentiation

If Apple did make a television, there are several things we can be fairly sure of: it would make it out of the same premium materials as almost everything else it makes, and it would want to make sure margins on such a product were in line with the rest of its product line. The challenge here is that Apple would be starting at a very small scale, so would enjoy none of the benefits of economies of scale that current TV makers have, and current TV makers already operate at razor-thin margins. Consumer electronics generally is an incredibly low margin business – single digit operating margins are the norm when companies make any money at all. For Apple to come in, raise the cost significantly because of both premium materials and its lack of scale, and then to try to recoup its supra-normal margins too would drive a price at least twice as high as televisions with similar specs, if not significantly higher. And of course we have a precedent for this in similar products: Apple’s 27” Thunderbolt display retails at $999, while Dell’s equivalent product retails for $599, Asus has one for $430, and low-cost brands go significantly lower. (I’m even completely ignoring, for now, the emergence of 4K televisions – which would magnify all these issues significantly, putting an Apple television into the stratosphere in TV pricing terms).

So why couldn’t Apple do this again in the TV space? To my mind, it comes down to differentiation. The Apple display is differentiated at least in part on the basis of its materials and its look. Arguably, the presence of the Apple logo is also a great signal in a workspace that this is a premium product – for the kinds of creatives who are likely to use these displays, this is an important signal to clients and others about the kind of work they do, and the products they use to get it done. But think about TVs and how they’re evolving. They’re mostly either attached to walls, on stands up against walls, or hidden away in cabinets much of the time. Bezels are shrinking and even disappearing. The prominent logos which once sat under the screen are disappearing with them. To a great extent the television is becoming the purest version of the black rectangle in our increasingly black-rectangle-filled lives. How would Apple differentiate on hardware here? Would it turn back the clock and increase the size of the bezel? Would people even notice if the tiny bezel were made of aluminum instead of black plastic? Would they care? Differentiation in TV hardware today is primarily about making everything but the screen disappear, and this seems totally at odds with Apple’s hardware differentiation.

How, then, to convince customers to part with double or more what they’d pay for an equivalent TV from competitors when the differentiation in hardware will be largely invisible? One option, of course, would be to add additional functionality to the hardware – a camera and microphone for FaceTime calls, for example, with the microphone doubling as an enabler of Siri for the TV. But these things have been tried and failed – FaceTime on personal devices works, but no-one has ever been able to convince families that they should be paying lots of extra money for a TV they can use as a videophone. It appears from Wakabayashi’s piece that Apple did indeed tinker with some of these things, but clearly concluded much the same thing.

Integration vs. a single input

The other way Apple could have differentiated a television is through software, and of course the vast majority of Apple’s products do differentiate through a combination of beautiful hardware tightly coupled with easy-to-use software. So, how would Apple differentiate an Apple TV through software? Well, the problem here isn’t so much that Apple couldn’t do this, but that if all the differentiation is in software, why can’t it be fed to the TV from a companion box like today’s Apple TV? What’s the difference, ultimately, between software baked into a TV and software baked into a box which directly connects to the TV? The challenge with companion boxes and traditional pay TV set top boxes today is that you often need more than one of them to meet your needs. TVs (and accessories such as receivers) come with more and more HDMI ports to cater to the range of devices the average individual or family wants to connect to them: pay TV set top box, Blu-Ray player, game console, a streaming box or stick, and so on. In such a world, it’s easy to imagine an Apple television providing a better way to manage all these inputs in a way a companion box simply can’t solve.

But what if Apple’s vision for the TV space involves more than just being another input plugged into another HDMI port? What if Apple’s plan is to take over the HDMI1 slot and convince you to dump all the other boxes you have historically plugged into your TV? To be clear, this is exactly the strategy I expect Apple to pursue with a revised Apple TV box and the Apple TV service. Under this scenario, input-switching goes away as a problem, and there’s very little meaningful difference between an Apple television and a generic third-party television fed by an upgraded Apple TV box. The only real differences are the need for two remotes and the lack of any audio integration with the TV hardware for Siri and other related functions. Both problems could easily be solved with the use of a better remote for the Apple TV, acting as both a universal remote and as an audio input device (much as Amazon’s Fire TV remote does).

The addressable market

The third reason why an Apple television makes far less sense than an upgraded Apple TV box is the addressable market. Were Apple to sell TVs, it could only target those willing to swap out whatever television they have for a new one, and at a significantly higher price than they’re used to paying. However, an Apple TV box, at a fraction of the price, has a significantly lower ASP but a vastly bigger addressable market – anyone who has any HD TV today and sees the value in adding an Apple experience. Now think about the potential revenue stream from an Apple TV service tightly bundled into the Apple TV box, and suddenly the overall addressable market and the associated revenue becomes significantly larger for this combination than for a television set. Factor in refresh cycles for televisions and the effect is magnified still further – a single purchase every 5-10 years versus more frequent upgrades on hardware and monthly recurring revenue from TV services becomes a no-brainer.

The counter-argument

Having spent most of this post talking about why a television doesn’t make sense, I’d like to briefly review a few reasons why it might, despite all these objections:

  • Control and integration: Apple’s standard model for product development is to approach hardware and software hand-in-hand, and create complete, end-to-end experiences. The current Apple TV flies in the face of this model, because it sits in the background behind a TV built and branded by someone else. An Apple television would be much more along familiar lines, tightly integrating hardware, software, and services, and creating an end-to-end Apple product.
  • Feeding the base: the reality is that many of Apple’s most ardent customers, who likely view Samsung as an inferior brand, nonetheless have Samsung TVs in their living rooms. For those used to buying high-end, well-designed hardware that works together seamlessly, having a relatively inferior product as one of the most visible pieces of consumer electronics in their homes may be irksome. Feeding the Apple base by providing them with an Apple product for this prominent piece of hardware must be tempting. There are no doubt those who would pay the massive premium to have an Apple television set, even if the total number is small.
  • Shutting out others: as long as Apple only makes a companion box, its role is essentially the same as other boxes plugged into the TV, and it has no control or leverage over them. With both the pay TV set top box and the television itself getting smarter and incorporating more functions, there’s a risk that the Apple TV slowly gets pushed out. But turn the model on its head, with Apple making a television, and suddenly Apple is the one calling the shots. It could gain huge leverage over the pay TV providers and how their content shows up on the television, for example.
  • Visible differentiation: one of the interesting things about the Apple TV is that it’s the only one among Apple’s product line today that’s made substantially out of black plastic rather than its usual premium materials. The reason for this is simple: it’s far cheaper, and the device in many cases will be hidden away in a closet or TV cabinet, especially when not in use. A television set, however, would allow Apple to be far more visible in the living room.

I don’t think any of these today come close to overcoming the objections I outlined above, but I can see why Apple at least wanted to explore the category for these reasons and others. Over time, it’s possible that the relative dynamics I’ve outlined above could shift such that the reasons for making a television start to overpower those for holding back. But for now I’m confident Apple has made the right decision.

  • I would only add two considerations. The fact that content is in the midst of a radical transition, and what that means in terms of hardware limitations and requirements. And, perhaps most importantly, the logistics and expense related to delivery and service of >50″ hardware.