Apple TV: Jobs' Last 'Just One More Thing'?

Leave it to Steve Jobs to break tech news posthumously. There are thousands of stories out there following up on Jobs’ comment in Walter Isaacson’s new bio (and Issacson’s discussing it on “60 Minutes” Sunday) that he had “cracked the code” on making interactive television “simple and elegant.” What will it look like? Will it be as revolutionary as other Apple products have been? And what might this mean to the market and marketing?

Let’s start with how much of the physical product was in Jobs’ fertile mind and how much of it is actually rooted in reality. Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster says he’s met with suppliers in the Far East and anticipates units rolling off their lines late next year or in early 2013.

“Imagine a 40- or 50-inch iPad," says an ABC News report. “[Munster] envisions a system that understands voice commands, using Apple's new Siri virtual assistant, and spares you the trouble of fumbling with a clunky remote that always gets lost between the sofa cushions. If you want to watch an obscure movie or play a game or record the Titans game on Sunday, ask and the system will find it. No more finding the buttons to switch manually between video sources; the TV will put it on the screen for you,” writes Ned Potter.

Ticonderoga Securities’ Brian White tells investors in a note that an Apple TV is “already flowing through factories over in China and in early-stage pilot and prototype production,” Neil Hughes reports in Apple Insider. White believes that, unlike the current “hockey puck” unit that’s a hard-to-resist (though most people do) $99, the new Apple TV will sell at two or three times the average LCD unit.

“In addition to offering Siri [‘intelligent’ voice recognition] and FaceTime [video conferencing] on its television set, [White] believes Apple could also bring its iAd advertising platform as well, allowing developers of third-party applications on the App Store to earn more revenue with software and games written for the HDTV,” says Hughes. And its Game Center social network could also be a “natural fit.”

Three sources tell Bloomberg Businessweek’s Adam Satariano that Jeff Robbin, who helped create the iPod and the iTunes media store, is running the development effort. “Robbin’s involvement is a sign of Apple’s commitment to extending its leadership in smartphones and tablets into the living room, Satariano writes. But, one source tells him, it's not a done deal that the TV will be released. Indeed, PC Mag’s Peter Pachal gives us “5 Big Obstacles Standing in the Way of a Real Apple TV.”

First, it’s not easy to make money making television sets (as they were once quaintly called) — prices are dropping and competition is stiff. Second, people generally upgrade their TVs about once every 10 years. Third, TVs are physically much bigger than anything else Apple has ever sold. Where will they be displayed in Apple Stores? How will repairs be handled? Fourth, who’s going to make them? Many likely suppliers are also potential competitors. Fifth, is this something that consumers really want?

Pachal concludes that, despite these and other challenges, the “goal of taking over consumers' living rooms is probably worth the cost.” But, he cautions, “Apple can't enter the TV market with the same lackadaisical approach it had with its set-top box.”

“In a hundred ways, an Apple television makes sense, but Apple is really leaping into new waters here -- and they're both cluttered with the detritus of devices of yore and shark-infested,” writes Kit Eaton in Fast Company. The big question is: What will we use it for? Probably a supercharged iTunes movie and TV store, for one thing, and “Apps with a capital ‘A,’” for another, Eaton guesses. Not to mention gaming.

But there's one thing to remember: This device is not going to be what you think,” Eaton writes. “As with most Apple innovations, the success of the Apple television won't come down to its design alone, or its screen or any other single aspect. What you've got to imagine is the synergy of a hundred elements, not all of which are necessarily brand-new, brought together with polish and smart thinking: Classic Apple.”

Need I tell you that Apple, as it generally does, refuses to comment on any of these reports beyond what Jobs uncharacteristically revealed to Issacson? Then again, maybe it wasn’t so uncharacteristic after all.

“Steve Jobs was the master at ‘just one more thing,’” analyst Munster points out, “and this was his last one thing.”

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