The Apple TV: Good Idea, Bad Idea?

While rumours are firming around the next iPad, the speculation surrounding whether or not Apple will get into the flat panel market continues to circulate. It sounds like a good idea, but I'm not so sure. The title for this piece is taken, for those who care, from a long-running Animaniacs sketch, in which Mr Skullhead would present a good idea followed by its illogical bad alternative. Presuming the gods of YouTube are smiling on me, you should be able to see some examples below.

The reason why that sketch comes to mind when I think about the Apple TV is that for every time I think that an Apple TV might be a good idea, my mind counterbalances it with a reason why it's a shockingly bad idea. So, for example:

Good Idea: The Apple TV would probably look really nice The team headed up by Jonathan Ive (it's a fallacy to presume that it's only his work that matters) don't tend to produce truly ugly looking devices. Sure, in recent years it's tended towards a particular look and only that look, but they're still darned pretty. A lot of TVs are plastic piles of junk.

Bad Idea: It's already been done Apple doesn't play much in low end budget markets, which means they'd be going head to head with the premium models offered by vendors such as Panasonic, LG and Samsung. Hmm... Apple vs Samsung. I'm sure I've heard of that before. Anyway, some premium televisions are genuinely good looking devices, within the constraints of something that should logically be 95 per cent screen anyway

Good Idea: Apple Updates Legacy Hardware For Longer Any Apple TV would need to be (in essence) a 'Smart TV', and that means applications and net awareness. Based on the track record for its iOS devices, Apple does fairly well in keeping older devices up to date with later releases of the underlying operating system software. Yes, it does leave them by the wayside eventually — I've got some earlier iPod Touch units and an iPhone 3G at home that are behind the times in iOS terms — but compared to a lot of the industry, Apple keeps its products updated for a longer period of time.

Bad Idea: With TV, they'd need to Do you buy a TV every single year? I certainly don't, and the general expectation of the lifespan of a television set is that you'll get at least five years out of it. Admittedly, TV prices have tumbled in recent years such that it'd be more affordable to do so, but that doesn't make it a good idea. Apple's a company that's built its recent fortunes on annual updates, but in the realm of TV, nobody's likely to buy a new Apple TV each year.

Good Idea: Apple's almost insanely focused on the tiniest details. Want proof? All of Apple's iOS screen shots are at the same time, and deliberately so. That kind of dedication to details does reap rewards for Apple, and (leaving aside those with a near pathological hatred of the company) for its consumers as well, with streamlined products that are very good at a core series of tasks, as defined by Apple.

Bad idea: That usually translates to a single product. There's one iPhone 4S. One iPod Touch. One iPad, although those rumours about an eight inch iPad refuse to die. In TV land, though, there's a genuine need for multiple sizes in the showroom, which in this case means more floor and stock space for each and every Apple store. Not only does that have an effect on the generally spartan aesthetic of an Apple store, but it also means plenty of space that'll need to be put aside for storage, shipping, spares — even longer Genius bars to accommodate TVs coming in for repair.

Good idea: Apple can leverage the existing iTunes architecture This is almost a given; there's no way that Apple would launch a TV that was just a TV; the hook would have to be in how easily it integrates into the existing iTunes movie and TV system.

Bad idea: iTunes isn't exactly a money-spinner for Apple. This is at least partly assumption, and partly based on a few things that Apple's made public regarding iTunes finances. Still, it's been clear from day one that iTunes was a mechanism originally to sell iPods, and later other iOS devices. In the TV arena, Apple doesn't own any production studios (even though the late Steve Jobs was on Disney's board), so all the content it serves through iTunes, it has to pay for at the rights level, as well as paying to deliver seamlessly to customers. Most analysts have come to the conclusion that iTunes is, in essence, a break-even proposition, and that means that Apple would have to make its money in its traditional manner; through sales of the hardware. Except TV prices are tumbling downwards, not upwards.

There's a secondary problem for Australian consumers here too, and that's the rights issue. What we get on iTunes now isn't terrible, but it's pretty ordinary in comparison to what's offered on the UK and US iTunes stores. It's not inconceivable that if Apple were to launch an Apple TV in the States with some wonderful new content offering, we may wait months or even years to get it.

Those are just my top-level thoughts, though. It also strikes me that for each and every one of them, there isn't really a case that isn't answered by simply updating the existing Apple TV set top box. It can be aesthetically reengineered to whatever Apple's current thinking actually is. They can change it every year, or update the software every year; in either case the cost of purchase is quite low anyway.

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