Will Apple be a power player in the future TV business?

18 Apr 2011

In his look back on the week, Siliconrepublic.com editor John Kennedy says the next cyber battlefield is set to be TV. Apple, having already saved the smartphone and tablet computer business, may yet emerge as a power player in this field.

When I first beheld a tablet computer in 2002, a bulky thing manufactured by HP running XP that was really a laptop with a swivel screen, I was told this powerful new form factor would transform computing as we know it. I didn’t realise it would take nine years for this to be a fact and for a different company, Apple, with its iPad, to be the main protagonist.

If you’d suggested five years ago that Apple would revolutionise – and even save – the smartphone business, people would have laughed nervously behind your back. And then Apple did it with the iPhone because it realised people need simple, elegant experiences with technology. Not stuff dreamed up by engineers for other engineers.

Since then, the mobile device world has been transformed with powerful markets emerging for mobile advertising, mobile apps, ways to consume content, location-based services, social media, you name it.

Suggestions that Apple has its eyes fixed on the next battlefield, the TV world, have been gaining credence in recent weeks.

Last week, I reported on Apple’s plans for the cloud world when it comes to video and TV and how it could emerge as a competitor to Hulu, Netflix and other potential rivals in the form of YouTube, which is planning a TV strategy, and Amazon, which has already stolen a march on everyone else with its cloud locker for music.

TV and video in the future will be an omnipresent cloud-based experience where you will never be out of touch with your favourite content and can choose to sustain the experience on any number of devices. Along with video, people are already watching TV on their mobile devices.

Back in the living room, the TV we all used to gather round with our families will be re-imagined as a hub for our online lives where higher and higher definition, three-dimensional viewing and more cinematic engaging experiences will be possible. At CES in January, I saw people swishing videos straight from tablet computers and smartphones directly to a HD screen with a flick of their fingers. The magic consisted of a combination of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capability, and the effect was stunning.

Back to Apple – the company has had its Apple TV technology for a few years now. It acts as a hub for wirelessly sharing video from iTunes straight onto your TV along with other content. iPad users today can connect via a HDMI output. The key issue here is content – while a cloud locker for all our DVDs and digital experiences will take some of the clutter out of the living room – the real nirvana will be constantly streaming TV and video services.

The real question – will Apple make its own TVs?

Various commentators in the past have said Apple would never enter a business like the television business. Why? Traditional industry structures would see Apple go like a lamb to the slaughter, its heart broken by difficult, established supply chains and low margins have been offered as reasons. I beg to differ. The iPad and iPhone have opened up important routes to market for the company – by stealth even – that will ease the flow of other technologies that will come from the Apple stable.

But hasn’t Apple proven everyone wrong before with its iPhone, suggesting traditional players like Nokia and Sony Ericsson would swat it away like an insect. Well, that didn’t happen now did it?

The more you think of it, an actual Apple TV product makes sense. Apple knows how to design attractive products. It knows how to manufacture display technology, it is expert in various wireless and internet systems. Design wise, the TV industry is also changing. Bevels that frame TVs are disappearing, HD images will seemingly hang in the air. TVs are becoming slimmer and in recent weeks Samsung said it plans to mass produce transparent LCD screens.

The TV apps opportunity also looms large and no one has effectively captured the opportunity for living room-based video conferencing, for example. Imagine FaceTime on an Apple TV as one offering, or other TVs with a Skype app keeping the world’s families communicating.

The notion of Apple entering the TV business is gaining credence by the week and the company has two choices: continue to develop the Apple TV business as we know it and become a conduit for content to reach the living room; or do what it did with smartphones and tablet computers – reinvent the entire genre.

As Apple CEO Steve Jobs says, we live in a post-PC world now. Mobility has seen to that. The next battlefield in consumer tech will be the living room, indeed the digital home, aided and abetted by the cloud and online storage.

It will be a fascinating revolution to watch.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years