Source: Flickr user Rob Boudon
Maybe Apple needs a new hobby. That whole Apple TV thing doesn’t really seem to be leading anywhere.
This week’s keenly anticipated Apple TV announcement turned out to be a major disappointment for those hoping for a big, disruptive breakthrough that would crack open the pay-TV ecosystem. There was no Apple subscription service, no cable VOD integration, and still no app store. What Apple TV got was a tweaked user interface, support for 1080p video and the ability to stream at least some movies purchased through iTunes and stored in the iCloud.
While it’s possible the latest update to the Apple TV set-top box is merely a holding action before Apple rolls out its long-rumored integrated TV set later this year or next, the lack of a major content deal as part of this week’s announcement suggests an Apple HDTV set is less likely in the near term than many analysts assume. Unless Apple is able to meaningfully transform the experience of watching TV, or of buying TV service, such as by offering channels as à la carte apps instead of bundled programming tiers, it’s not clear how Apple would gain a strategic advantage over other TV makers.
Instead, this week’s announcement indicates more clearly than ever that Apple’s path to disrupting the pay-TV ecosystem runs not through the living room but through mobile devices and the cloud.
As a threshold matter, Apple has now sold 172 million iDevices of various sorts, including 15.4 million iPads in the fourth quarter of 2011 alone, and there are over 100 million iCloud subscribers, according to Apple CEO Tim Cook. It would be folly not to try to leverage the scale of that user base when negotiating for rights from content owners, and Apple has a history of avoiding that folly. It did not try to negotiate rights from the record labels, for instance, until it had first built up a large base of iTunes users.
While the Apple TV set-top has sold well compared to other streaming set-tops, its user base is tiny compared to the base of Apple mobile devices. And Apple would be starting from a base of zero with an integrated TV set. Apple simply lacks the scale or an easy path to obtaining that scale in the living room to do anything terribly disruptive to the existing order there.
Mobile video rights are also still mostly unspoken for, making them a more attractive target for Apple. Unlike over-the-top streaming to fixed devices in the living room, mobile video is largely encumbered by legacy licensing deals or business models. If Apple wants to change how people buy TV content, mobile rights at least have the potential to offer greater flexibility in how they are packaged and priced than over-the-top streaming rights.
The features of the new iPad offer another clue to Apple’s long-term strategy. The new tablet’s ultra-high-def “retina” display, improved graphics processing, support for 1080p video and 4G LTE wireless capability make it an ideal device for watching video. In some cases, in fact, video on the new iPad may end up looking better to many viewers than it does on a big-screen TV, which for all of its screen size lacks the resolution of a retina display.
Finally, time is on Apple’s side in mobile video. According to Nielsen, the number of mobile subscribers who are using their wireless service to watch video is growing rapidly, and mobile video is the largest single factor driving the overall surge in mobile data consumption, according to Cisco. TV viewing in particular is surging on mobile devices, thanks in no small measure to the iPad. Clearly, Apple’s video-optimized new iPad is designed to encourage and accelerate that trend.
While traditional pay-TV service providers battle Boxee and Google for supremacy in the living room, in other words, TV viewers are inexorably moving Apple’s way, away from fixed delivery platforms to mobile platforms. As they do, Apple’s leverage with the networks and content owners can only increase. At some point — and given the rate at which iPads are selling, not a very distant point — Apple will gain enough leverage to force the sort of change in the basic TV-service value proposition that Boxee, or even Netflix, never will.
At that point, Apple will be ready to take the advantage it will have gained back to the living room, with a connected big-screen TV or set-top box. But its path there runs through the small screen.