By Jason Snell
September 30, 2016 2:05 PM PT
By Request: Apple’s long game in the living room
Subscriber Joe asked me to write about what Apple’s living-room strategy is these days. Sometimes I think the strategy is to stall and wait to see what happens. I’m not sure any tech company is really making great strides in the living room right now. Sure, there are players—Apple, Amazon, Roku, Google—and they’ve all got different product offerings. But nobody has taken anything resembling an insurmountable lead, and it seems like a whole lot of tech companies are willing to bide their time when it comes to traditional television.
Can you blame them? The traditional television industry feels like it’s crumbling day by day. It seems like a smart strategy to tinker around the edges until a crack opens up that lets you finally make a product that can change the game.
As Dan mentioned in a recent Macworld article, there’s been some talk of the FCC making new regulations that would basically allow any old box to be a cable box. I’m not sure I really believe that this will ever happen, but that would be exactly the kind of crack I’m talking about. When every cable company’s TV box is just streaming video over the Internet, why do cable companies need to have TV boxes?
This past couple of weeks I’ve been using Comcast’s new Xfinity TV app. That’s its name—TV. What it does is turn any iOS device in my house into a TV. Every channel that I can see on my TV, I can watch live on my iPad. Even restricted stuff like baseball games—if I’m in my house, I can watch it. That app is basically a cable box already—a Comcast app relaying its TV service, running on Apple hardware. (It also supports Picture in Picture on my iPad, which more than I can say for many other TV-service apps out there.)
Or maybe it won’t be a transition away from traditional cable boxes. There are all sorts of different ways that this industry could crack, which is why it pays to wait and watch and see what shakes out. Maybe the rise of various streaming bundles will make that a better way into the market. Maybe our very conception of television will change so much that what we consider must-have features today will turn out to be irrelevant.
What if big TVs are just for watching movies and stuff? What if people stop buying big TVs at all? I admit that might be a decade or two out, but it might happen. If VR stuff ends up getting really good, really fast, it might happen even faster than you think. (I want to believe that we’ll always want to watch a movie or TV show on a big screen in a darkened room with good sound, but lots of people believed that we’d always want to read a newspaper every morning, and look how that worked out.)
Anyway, Joe, what I’m saying is, I think maybe Apple’s just being prudent and waiting. The Apple TV is fine. It’s got some issues, but in the grand scheme of things I think Apple considers it more of a stake to stay in the game than a vitally important part of its strategy. That doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t like the Apple TV to be a better product now—but maybe if we view it as more of a placeholder or declaration of intent, Apple’s on-and-off attention to it will make a little more sense.