The TV industry is a major segment of the consumer electronics industry and Apple is the leading consumer electronics company in the world. Thus far Apple has entered the TV market with a stand-alone device, Apple TV. There has been speculation about whether Apple might enter the TV market by creating an actual TV. The most convincing objections to that idea cite the unfavorable industry structure: the power of the cable operators, the low margins on TVs, the infrequency of people buying new TVs, etc.
I thought it would be interesting to go back and look at the reasoning analysts used to predict the failure of the iPhone before its launch in 2007. Some predicted it would fail because the other handset makers would successfully compete with Apple:
The iPod also conquered the problem of small screens and cheesy navigation. With its newfound popularity, the company was also able to get music publishers to agree to its terms. Unfortunately for Apple, problems like that don’t exist in the handset business. Cell phones aren’t clunky, inadequate devices. Instead, they are pretty good. Really good. Why do you think they call it a Crackberry? Because the lumpy design and confusing interface of the device is causing people to break into cars? No, it’s because people are addicted to it. Samsung has scoured the world’s design schools and hired artists on three continents to keep its phones looking good. Motorola has revived its fortunes with design. KDDI, a Japanese carrier, has a design showcase in the teen shopping area of Tokyo just to be close to trends. And Sharp doesn’t skimp when it comes to putting LCD TVs on its phones. Apple, in other words, won’t be competing against rather doltish, unstylish companies like the old Compaq. The handset companies move pretty quick and put out new models every few weeks. [emphasis added]
Other analysts predicted Apple’s phone was doomed because of the mobile phone industry structure – mobile operators commanded so much power via subsidies, retail distribution etc:
Apple will launch a mobile phone in January, and it will become available during 2007. It will be a lovely bit of kit, a pleasure to behold, and its limited functionality will be easy to access and use. The Apple phone will be exclusive to one of the major networks in each territory and some customers will switch networks just to get it, but not as many as had been hoped. As customers start to realise that the competition offers better functionality at a lower price, by negotiating a better subsidy, sales will stagnate. After a year a new version will be launched, but it will lack the innovation of the first and quickly vanish. The only question remaining is if, when the iPod phone fails, it will take the iPod with it. [emphasis added]
I am not citing these analysts to mock them. Hindsight is 20/20 and it was quite reasonable at the time to assume that a new phone from Apple would confront the same issues that new phones from other companies confronted. What Apple ended up doing, however, was creating a phone that was so incredibly desirable to consumers that it completely restructured the industry, causing a massive shift of power away from the carriers.
Regarding the TV industry, here is what Steve Jobs said last year at AllThingsD:
Q: Is it time to throw out the interface for TV? Does television need a new human interface.
A: The problem with innovation in the TV industry is the go-to-market strategy. The TV industry has a subsidized model that gives everyone a set top box for free. So no one wants to buy a box. Ask TiVo, ask Roku, ask us… ask Google in a few months. The television industry fundamentally has a subsidized business model that gives everyone a set-top box, and that pretty much undermines innovation in the sector. The only way this is going to change is if you start from scratch, tear up the box, redesign and get it to the consumer in a way that they want to buy it. But right now, there’s no way to do that….The TV is going to lose until there’s a viable go-to-market strategy. That’s the fundamental problem with the industry. It’s not a problem with the technology, it’s a problem with the go-to-market strategy….I’m sure smarter people than us will figure this out, but that’s why we say Apple TV is a hobby.
So Jobs doesn’t believe an “additional box” is a viable strategy for seriously entering the TV industry. This leaves three places to enter: 1) integrating into set top boxes, 2) integrating into other TVs, or 3) Apple creating its own TV. Regarding #1, the last thing the cable operators want is for internet-delivered programming that bypasses their cable channels to become widespread – they see that as the fast track to become a dumb pipe. Re #2: This just seems very unlike Apple – the most vertically integrated company in tech, and famous for wanting to control every aspect of the product and user experience.
Re #3, let’s imagine Apple develops a TV that is as groundbreaking as the iPhone was. The biggest problem “smart TVs” have today is that they need clunky IR transmitters to control set top boxes because the cable operators won’t willingly interoperate. So a new Apple TV would have to drum up such incredible consumer demand that the operators would feel compelled to support it. This does indeed seem harder in the TV than in the mobile industry. At least in the US you had 4 nationwide mobile operators at the time of the iPhone launch. In TV, consumers normally have at most two real choices for traditional cable programming – cable and satellite – and two real choices for two-way internet – cable and DSL/FIOS.
Perhaps Apple won’t enter the market due to its structure. But that didn’t stop them in mobile phones where the structure was similarly difficult. The mistake analysts made about the iPhone was to assume the current industry structure would be sustained after Apple’s entry. I’d be wary of making the same assumption about the TV industry.