This is not the Apple you were expecting.
Apple does not participate in the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, but this year the company is everywhere. Apple has struck deals with major TV manufacturers to embed support for AirPlay 2 (and in at least one case, the iTunes movie and TV stores) in their 4K HDR televisions, and CES is when TV manufacturers make their most significant announcements.
Some individuals are perplexed by Apple’s decision to allow access to its video content without requiring the purchase of an Apple TV. Those individuals are, in all honesty, imagining an Apple that no longer exists, namely one that was committed to profiting from high-margin hardware sales.
Since Apple shifted its focus to its Services revenue line in January 2016, the company has been preparing for three years to offset iPhone’s slowing growth with a new category that can deliver Wall Street-pleasing revenue growth. Services is Apple’s fastest-growing revenue category, with a consistent upward trajectory unmatched by any other aspect of the company’s business.
Offering its TV services to the general public
This is the new Apple, which is still content to make money by selling Macs, iPads, and especially iPhones, but is aware that it must expand into new markets. Apple makes more money through Apple Music, the App Store, iCloud, and Apple Pay than through the sale of hardware. There are more items available.
During the summer of 2017, Apple hired two Sony TV executives, reportedly provided them with a budget of one billion dollars for content, and began developing a streaming service to compete with Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, HBO, and Disney. But you don’t spend a billion dollars to sell more Apple TV boxes; that would be a futile investment. You spend a billion dollars on content to attract as many subscribers to your video service as possible.
Since I wrote last month, the arrow has been pointing in the direction of Apple forming partnerships with other companies. Apple’s agreement with Amazon to put Apple Music on the Amazon Echo demonstrated that the company is not afraid to bring its services to hardware manufactured by other companies.
And now, at CES, we have witnessed the beginning of the avalanche. I do not doubt that Apple has struck deals with every premium TV manufacturer, and so far Vizio, Sony, LG, and Samsung have signed on. I must assume more announcements are forthcoming, and not just from television producers. Apple should integrate its services with other third-party video platforms, such as Roku and Amazon Fire TV, as the next logical step.
Roku manufactures its hardware and embeds its software in many high-end televisions, making a switch to Roku advantageous for Apple. Given the recent deals announced by Apple and Amazon, including Apple Music on Echo, Prime Video on Apple TV, and the availability of Apple products on Amazon.com, it seems unlikely that a deal for Fire TV support is not in the works.
The role of AirPlay 2 in all of this
The unknown is the nature of Apple’s partnership with Samsung. This is the only deal to date that includes both AirPlay 2 and a dedicated app for Apple’s services. Is this a unique offering? If so, how long is the period of exclusivity? Or did TV manufacturers have the option of supporting both AirPlay 2 and a dedicated app, with Samsung being the only manufacturer to commit to a dedicated app? It is somewhat mysterious.
While it would be ideal for every TV and box to have an Apple video app—presumably, the iTunes logo will be replaced with the name of Apple’s subscription video service, if it is not “iTunes”—AirPlay 2 is a viable alternative. The former allows anyone, regardless of Apple device ownership, to play Apple’s videos on their television. The latter should function properly and integrate with Siri, but you must own at least one Apple device.
AirPlay 2 does solve a significant problem, which I described back in November: the notion that many Apple ecosystem users (i.e., those with an iPhone, iPad, or Mac) will never be convinced to pay $149 for an Apple TV box. If AirPlay 2 becomes standard on modern televisions, all friction will be eliminated, as you will be able to purchase, rent, or stream content on your Apple device and then watch it on your television without an additional box.
There are further steps to be taken
I also wonder as I speculated last June if Apple will ultimately license tvOS to TV manufacturers, competing with Roku and webOS on smart TVs. I’m uncertain if this week’s announcements will influence my opinion either way. It is a distinct possibility for Apple and one that would significantly expand the reach of tvOS. However, it is no longer as strategically vital as it once was.
In addition, I do not believe that this week marks the end of Apple TV as a product. I believe there is a market for premium Apple-made products that embody Apple’s priorities and are designed to appeal to consumers who desire an all-Apple experience. The HomePod is a great standalone voice-controlled speaker system; if the fact that it is the only place to voice-control Apple Music is the only thing keeping it alive, it should be discontinued. With Apple’s commitment to privacy, the ability to run iOS apps, and the promise of the best experience Apple can build for its content and services, the Apple TV will also be a solid standalone option. If that is not sufficient for it to carve out a niche, it should perish. (I believe both products will persist and thrive as premium options.)
What follows? Undoubtedly, the introduction of Apple’s new video service. While Hollywood trades are rife with reports of Apple’s deals with major stars, star producers, and studios, Apple has remained silent. We are unaware of the service’s name, price, or release date.
The only certainty is that when Apple announces its service, which it has been developing for 18 months, some people will be surprised. From its focus on Services revenue to its expensive TV deals, Apple’s shift in strategy has been evident for some time, from an emphasis on Services revenue to expensive TV deals. However, if you view Apple as a company that merely sells boxes for profit, 2019 will only continue to surprise you.