Remember a few months ago, when everyone was hyperventilating about the forthcoming Apple TV?
This was the magical "sheet of glass" powered by Siri that Apple was going to start selling for twice the price of a regular TV.
Apple was going to go do big deals with the TV content companies, disrupt the cable companies, and drive its stock straight to $1,000 by revolutionizing the TV business.
Well, no one talks about the Apple TV anymore.
We're not sure why.
We doubt it has been shelved completely. (We hope not, anyway). Maybe it has just been eclipsed by the iPhone 5 and iPad Mini.
But now Jessica Vascellaro and Shalini Ramachandran of the Wall Street Journal bring news that might explain the recent silence about this exciting new Apple product line.
Apparently, Apple has been meeting with cable TV companies recently pitching a new idea:
A cable set-top box that is built or at least powered by Apple technology.
This would presumably either be sold directly, via Apple stores, and replace cable customers' current cable boxes. Or it would be bought by the cable companies and rented to subscribers, the same way cable companies rent today's set-top boxes.
The advantages to this sort of deal for Apple are obvious:
- Immediate access to live TV content that consumers are already paying for (and that, otherwise, Apple would have to license directly from networks)
- A clever way of getting into the living room and TV ecosystem, without forcing consumers to change their TV-watching habits or TV providers or buy another set-top box
- The same sort of "carrier subsidy" arrangement that has helped sell so many iPhones
- The seamless convergence of today's TV with the future of TV, which is streaming and stored media delivered through iTunes, the Internet, etc.
- It would set Apple up to gradually gain more leverage over the cable companies--until the day when Apple has enough households worldwide that it can go direct to the networks and render the cable companies dumb pipes.
All that would be excellent for Apple. And the technology could be incorporated into the Apple TV hardware (the "sheet of glass") and help Apple sell millions more TVs.
Of course, the cable companies aren't stupid.
They know exactly what Apple wants to do to them.
And although there are advantages to this arrangement for the cable companies, too--namely, they could insert themselves into the "new TV" ecosystem from which they are currently excluded (content delivered over the Internet), and perhaps get a cut of sales--they also might be helping bring about their own demise as the gateway to TV.
(The cable companies have a viable future, regardless of what happens to pay TV, because they're now the country's primary Internet access provider. Consumers need broadband access desperately--it has become as important to daily life as electricity--and cable companies can make a nice living off that alone. And they can make an especially nice living off it if, say, they were to share some of the revenue Apple generates from iTunes and TV sales).
In any event, there's a lot at stake for both sides here, so these will be tense negotiations.
But it might be that there's enough "win-win" potential that deals can get done.
And there's another thing to think about here.
Don't forget that Google has its own designs on the TV business (Google TV).
Don't forget that Google is, even now, launching a full-fledged cable TV killer in Kansas City, with possible plans to roll out more super-high-speed broadband services elsewhere.
So it's a reasonable bet to think that Google also wants to become your cable set-top box.
That adds another motivation for the cable companies to negotiate with Apple. And it provides a motivation for the cable companies to negotiate with Google.
And then Amazon's also hanging around, with its own movie and TV streaming service. And Netflix. And Microsoft, which still hopes to leverage the XBox into the nerve center of your living room.
And then there are the cable and broadcast networks themselves--the content providers--who arewatching their ratings tank as their audience moves to the Internet, phones, iPads, and "over-the-top" new TV services. The networks don't want to see their business models collapse. So it seems a safe bet that they'll want to stay in close touch with these negotiations, too.
Bottom line, it seems as though the future of the TV business is, finally, about to take a big step forward.
We're on the edge of our seats!