Speaking at the AllThingsD conference last month, Apple CEO Tim Cook called TV “an area of intense interest” for the company. But you wouldn’t know it from watching Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference two weeks later.
Notwithstanding the furious speculation about Apple’s TV plans touched off by Cook’s comments at D10 — will it introduce an integrated display? will it open the SDK for building apps for the Apple TV set-top box? — Apple executives said virtually nothing about those plans at the WWDC. This being Apple, their silence quickly generated a new parlor game in speculating over why the company did not announce what everyone assumed they were going to announce.
There’s no way of knowing for certain, of course, whether Apple may have been planning to discuss Apple TV more fully at WWDC and then changed its mind for some reason. But most of those speculating about it in the weeks leading up to the conference were looking in the wrong place anyway.
While I’m sure Apple has built prototype displays, and even investigated potential component supply chains, it is highly unlikely Apple will introduce an integrated display product anytime soon. It would be highly uncharacteristic — and would make little sense — for Apple to introduce an expensive piece of hardware for which it did not control the software and user interface. In the case of a TV, that means controlling how users access the linear TV content most consumers now get from cable or satellite services. Licensing the rights to that content — essentially launching a competing pay-TV service — would be enormously expensive and would make an integrated TV product commercially non-viable.
As for an open SDK, there is little evidence so far that consumers are embracing TV apps apart from those for on-demand streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and YouTube, which require little interaction beyond clicking Play. As an apps platform, the TV still has a serious user-interface problem. Insofar as more interactive TV-related apps have found success, such as social viewing and companion apps, they have found it on the second screen, using touch. While Apple may have been considering an SDK for second-screen iPad apps, as I noted last week, Microsoft just stole a march on Apple and everyone else with second screen ambitions with the introduction of Xbox SmartGlass at E3.
In any case, Apple’s TV strategy is ultimately platform-based, not device-based. And looked at from that perspective, there has actually been a fair amount of activity from Apple recently, including at WWDC.
One sign, as I wrote here last month, is Apple’s new partnership with TiVo. Using TiVo Stream, TiVo subscribers will be able to stream recorded programs to any iOS device connected to the same home network. As Brightcove CEO Jeremy Allaire has argued, Apple’s TV strategy is likely to involve seeking partnerships with leading cable operators to integrate with their EPG, VOD and network-DVR infrastructures, so that Apple can build a premium experience on top of the services consumers already pay for. The TiVo partnership represents both a demonstration project for the concept and an implicit warning to cable operators that Apple is willing to do this the hard way, without their involvement, if the operators don’t want to open their own API’s.
Another sign of Apple’s platform-centric approach to the TV was the addition of AirPlay mirroring to OS X, announced at WWDC, which enables Mac devices to stream 1080p content to a TV set equipped with an Apple TV set-top. Devices running iOS already have that capability. Rather than embedding Apple software in the TV itself, in other words, Apple is turning every Mac and iOS device into a kind of virtual STB, capable of retrieving content from anywhere on the web and displaying it on the TV.
The new MacBooks were also given powerful new GPUs and Intel’s new Ivy Bridge CPUs, which will make them formidable game machines capable of displaying those games on an HDTV screen — in effect a virtual game console (prediction: Apple will introduce a game controller for the Macbook before it introduces a TV). Microsoft has already shown how it is possible to build a robust video platform atop a gaming platform with Xbox Live and I would expect Apple to try to leverage its growing presence strengthen its position in the living room.
Given all that, it’s not clear why Apple did not talk more openly about its surround-and-conquer strategy for the TV at WWDC. Perhaps it doesn’t want to draw attention to what are still, in some ways, stealth tactics. But just because it isn’t talking about it doesn’t mean nothing is happening.