Apple's $1 Billion TV 'Hobby' Is Starting To Feel Like A 90s Cable Company

That “hobby” comment Steve Jobs made years ago about Apple TV seems to have become a deft tool for managing expectations in the company’s never-ending rumored struggle to transform TV. It came up again Friday when CEO Tim Cook told a shareholders’ meeting that the Apple TV business had generated over $1 billion over the past year. Whether that is from Apple TV set-top-box sales alone or revenue from the entire movie rental/purchase ecosystem is not as clear. But Cook himself joked, “It’s a little more difficult to call it a hobby these days,” according to Reuters.

To look at the increasingly cluttered Apple TV home page it is clear the company is lurching toward something that looks like an end run around the cable box. It has cord-cutting written all over it at this point. The perennial Disney alliance is evident in the Disney, ESPN  apps everywhere. Neflix, HBO Go, and Hulu are, of course, the anchor now present on most set-tops and streaming media devices. You can even get a live stream of Sky TV on the thing now.



There probably are more channels there than last time I checked, but the truth is that I haven’t clicked over to that input for a while. My Apple TV was a mainstay for years, but it has been supplanted largely by my own Dish set-top and Google’s Chromecast. I also tend to use my PS3 in order to access some of the exclusive content on my Amazon Instant Video account, which Apple does not carry. Generally, both Amazon and Google are superior to Apple in managing recommendations. The flexibility of the Chromecast interface via the phone is very good. And the Dish experience saves me from juggling new inputs. The on-demand selections are in many ways superior to Apple’s or many of the others. And most are free.

In other words, Apple’s attempts to maintain interest in the service simply by expanding the available channels is failing with me, and ironically represents an old school approach. Isn’t this the way the cable companies tried to keep us on board in the 90s to prevent use moving to satellite? Wasn’t that Comcast sending me monthly mailers telling me of the 5 new channels they added in recent weeks, like the car modeling channel and Quilting TV? Apple TV is drilling into niches now such as Red Bull TV, Vimeo and Korean TV.

Which is to say that Apple TV feels a lot more like a holding maneuver now than a platform where Apple is innovating. Both Amazon and Google are starting to explore richer enhancements to the movie and TV viewing experience that no doubt will be part of their connected TV products in time. Amazon’s X-Ray technology for annotating media with connected material is available in its richest form on its own Kindle tablets. You can tap on characters and get actor background from the company’s IMdB trove. Google is mimicking this functionality with its Google Play Movies Info Cards. Neither will show the material on the TV screen yet, but they are daft if they don’t sometime soon. This is how you answer the question “what was she in?” that comes up a few times in every group movie viewing. For kids’ fare -- especially the films that have been obsessively viewed and memorized -- second-screen and annotated experiences have a special role because they don’t detract as much from the pure viewing experience.

Annotations are just one small example of innovating on the media experience itself that we are seeing Amazon and Google explore while Apple just keeps piling on the channels none of us are going to watch. I am amazed at all of the players in the space over the lack of imagination at work here. Why isn’t someone working harder on personalization and aggregating favorites into a more efficient viewing experience? It seems to me that set-top boxes are begging for something closer to a podcast experience where preferences and subscriptions to select new content collect what is most interesting into a single package for the user. The key function of a set-top box should not be channel changing; it should be aggregation of preferred content. Why aren’t these devices extracting from the apps the content I am subscribing to?

I am not sure that bringing apps from the mobile world to the TV is that great a leap forward if the interface suffers the same siloed experiences that are making the phone and tablet decks feel constrained. Steve Jobs was right that the ways we access video content are outmoded and in need of an interface and conceptual rethinking. Making my TV look more like my smartphone and tablet is not the answer. It only created more silos -- more hurdles between me and the specific content I want at hand. 

3 comments about "Apple's $1 Billion TV 'Hobby' Is Starting To Feel Like A 90s Cable Company".
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  1. Herb Lair from CUO,Inc., March 4, 2014 at 12:05 p.m.

    "To look at the increasingly cluttered Apple TV home page it is clear the company is lurching toward something that looks like an end run around the cable box. It has cord-cutting written all over it at this point."
    Similar to Apple's approach to music & publishing.Apple TV will be the mobile device and process and not just a flat screen TV. Cable hasn't set the bar very high, even satellite outsells Charter Cable in its market. Netflix deal with Disney over cable indicates longtime cable content is in play. The subscriber fondness of mobile devices and voice/Siri type control, tracking interests and preferences along with moving the clunky and costly set top box controls to the Cloud along with a Google type search model of generating part of its revenue through ads. The way broadcast TV paid for and controlled content in the early days. The tracking of subscriber preferences like Amazon does. Apple TV to me is something that will have to work with legacy flat screen TVs as well as new Apple TVs but will be the process (social media and Cloud) and selling mobile devices (the real Apple TV) and the new business model (hybrid with subscription and targeted ads). Not just a a flat screen
    But should save customer money as Apple has done with music and aps

  2. bill smith from WMS, Inc, March 4, 2014 at 12:53 p.m.

    Check out Expertmaker. They have been developing tools and UI's that do exactly what you are asking for. Just no scale yet.

  3. Brian Nakamoto from Tightrope Interactive, Inc., March 5, 2014 at 4:16 p.m.

    Apple TV's core feature is its ability to deliver user bought and created content (photos, music, movies, playlists, apps) from the rest of Apple's ecosystem (iPhone, iPad, Mac) to the TV from the (i)cloud, and effectively P2P (AirPlay).

    The other third-party content apps such as Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, etc. are just gravy, and likely give Apple a ton of insight into those company's users. If you are bought into the Apple ecosystem, then Apple TV is a natural choice over Chromecast or whatever is built into your cable box, TV, or game console because Apple TV just works.

    Apple is bringing the Apple TV concept of treating a car as another dumb output device like the TV with CarPlay. Apple is indicating that they'll let iOS developers optimize their apps for CarPlay. It'll be interesting to see if they finally open up Apple TV. I do agree that Apple needs to get better at syncing user preferences across third-party services (e.g. iCloud ID vs. Live ID), but I also can see why it's a difficult problem to solve.

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