Rumors abound about Apple making a televison (not to be confused with the existing product, the Apple TV). Here's a good roundup of the rumors.
When considering if Apple might enter an existing market, we consider if they can advance the space enough to differentiate themselves and find ongoing success. We also consider if their new product can fit into their overall platform and image. Apple can probably find a way to make marginally better socks than everyone else, but for a lot of reasons it doesn't make sense to enter that market. (Is MUJI the Apple of socks? Discuss).
I had the first iPhone in 2007. When I got it, I was enormously frustrated with other phones and smartphones on the market. They were difficult to use and configure. Believe it or not, my primary motivation for getting the iPhone was because I wanted a better user interface for all the phone features (address book, calls, etc.) and the very basic tasks of a smartphone (notes, web browsing). Apple's marketing when the iPhone was introduced was heavily centered around the fact that the browser was almost identical in capability to a desktop browser, and this came in as a strong second for what I wanted out of the phone.
Then many months later, the app platform was introduced. The iPhone steadily began to weave itself into every aspect of my life, becoming an indispensable tool that is always with me. I didn't get the iPhone wanting this, but have been happy every step of the way as it happened.
So let's say that this gives us a simple set of criteria that Apple should use to decide whether to enter a market.
- Can Apple significantly improve upon the experience of the existing features/functionality of products in the space?
- Can Apple offer something that is very special and different, which people will immediately find indispensable?
- Can Apple create a platform by which the product becomes more and more a part of the user's life?
Let's apply this to a few products:
- The Newton unarguably achieved criteria 1 extremely well. For criteria 2, its feature was handwriting recognition, but even though it was far and away the best in class, it couldn't make itself indispensable for enough users. And of course it never got the chance to achieve criteria 3 (and now one might say the Newton lives on in iOS).
- OS X achieved criteria 1 immediately compared to any flavor of Windows, and compared to the previous Mac OS. For criteria 2... there were certainly a variety of nice features that competitors didn't have, but I don't know what I'd identify as a standout. At any rate, market conditions and the product itself gave plenty of time for it to achieve 3.
- The Macbook Air was introduced during the "netbook" craze. As with almost all Apple hardware, the execution of the product itself was excellent, achieving criteria 1. I'm not sure what to pinpoint for criteria 2 -- maybe excellent battery life and a full-sized keyboard in a laptop that runs a full OS? It was the first Apple computer to eschew an optical drive, I don't know how many Windows computers were doing that at the time. I think it has achieved 3 by now -- folks who have a macbook air seem to love them. You can put one in your bookbag and forget that it's there until you need it, at which point it's a full-featured workhorse.
- The iPad pretty much created a new category. The closest thing to compare it to would be Windows tablets, which were full-OS computers pretty much only used in specific professional contexts. The features for criteria 2 might be its lightness and battery life. And it already had the iOS platform and ecosystem to help it with criteria 3. Although in this case there is the interesting question of how relevant the iPad will be going forward, as laptops become lighter and phones become larger.
So, what about an Apple television? I've been pondering this for a while and could never really think of what Apple could do here. Yes, they would use top of the line panels, just like in their laptops and displays. Yes, they would have a nice UI, probably identical to what's in the current Apple TV. So criteria 1 is taken care of. Criteria 3 is already partially taken care of with the iTunes store, and undoubtedly Apple can find a way to make the Apple television into an app platform with increasing relevance in our lives. (A persistent display showing weather, calendar, todos? Put the 36" Apple television in the kitchen to interact with a cooking app using siri voice commands while you cook?).
But what of criteria 2? I want a Siri portal hanging on each wall of my house in 2020, but before we get there the Apple television has to be a really good television that is strongly differentiated from the existing enormous field of competitors. What would make an Apple television different from a Sony television with an Apple TV hooked up to it?
I currently don't have a television, I just watch shows and movies on my laptop. Lately I've been planning on getting a television or a projector. The sad reality is that almost all televisions these days have horrible sound. In pondering my future setup, I've been thinking "What will I do for sound? Will I just get a soundbar and call it a day? Do I want to put together a 2.1/3.1 speaker setup?"
Recently, the Apple television rumors have become more fervent and seemingly certain, so I've been thinking I'll probably get one. But my pondering of what sound setup I would have didn't change. Until today, I suddenly realized:
"Wait a second — would Apple release a TV that has bad audio?"
Can you imagine setting up your shiny new $3,000 (if it's not subsidized) Apple television, turning on a movie, and then having a hard time hearing the dialogue? Finding the sound effects uninspiring? And then buying an ugly contrasting soundbar to stick underneath your perfect Apple device? It's the kind of bad experience that for the past decade Apple hasn't allowed to happen with its products. If Apple can't provide the best experience for a feature, they simply don't support the feature.
And then it dawned on me: not only would Apple insist on their television having good sound, but it would be a main reason that they would find significant early traction in the market. In the same way that a full-featured web browser was the simple-yet-magical feature of the first iPhone, high quality sound could be what differentiates an Apple television from every other television on the market (other than super high priced outliers from the likes of Bang and Olufsen).
So, I predict that if Apple releases a television, it will have much higher quality sound than every other television on the market.
There's an additional dimension to all this: What if Apple does release a television, and it has the same bad or mediocre sound as every other television? Or heck, what if the sound is better than everyone else's, but only by a little, so that casual A/V enthusiasts such as myself are still compelled to buy third-party soundbars or speakers? What would this mean for Apple as a company?