Apple is trialling yet more televisions, if you believe the chunnering from the supply chain, and – so eager analysts would have us believe – is one step closer to taking over your living room. Whispers of new test hardware using big Sharp LCDs and Foxconn’s production skills come on the heels of research suggesting a fair number of consumers are desperate to throw more money at their Cupertino addiction, as well as CEO Tim Cook’s tongue-in-cheek “it’s an area of intense interest” comments last week. Yet in reality, despite the hype, little has actually changed from the last batch of rumors, and we’re no closer to chucking out our BRAVIA for a Siri-controlled set.
First, a recap: according to this week’s chatter, there’s a fresh batch of TV hardware headed from Foxconn to Apple’s labs, with the company having gone from internal development to asking its manufacturing partners to whip up a prototype or two. Specifications of said-prototypes are unclear, but Sharp – wavering, despite a rumored $2bn life-raft from Apple already – is said to have supplied the panels, possibly using IZGO technology.
Rumors of Apple’s ambitions in the living room aren’t new. Behind perhaps iPhone speculation and whispers of an iPad mini, the idea of an Apple television has persisted like no other. It’s also, if the insiders are to be believed, been an ongoing project within Apple for some time now.
Work, in fact, has been occupying some of Apple’s team for “a number of years” the WSJ report admits, and it’s not the first we’ve heard of Sharp involvement. Analysts were claiming a love-in between the Japanese company’s screens and Cupertino back in 2011, after all.
Is anything different this time around? Hon Hai’s chairman investing in a chunk of Sharp’s large-scale LCD production facility adds an interesting mini-twist to proceedings, with the cash injection giving Foxconn first call on up to half of the plant’s panel output. So far that droit de seigneur has benefited Vizio, but there’s no reason Apple couldn’t poach the panels for its own purposes.
Frankly, though, it would be more of a surprise if Apple wasn’t working on some sort of TV development. The existing Apple TV may look like a sales-afterthought in comparison to iPhone and iPad shipments of late, but that doesn’t mean Apple can afford to ignore the living room. What it will need to convince itself, however, is that biting off an extra degree of complexity and cost – providing the screen and the tuners and everything else, rather than just a simple box that plugs in via HDMI – is warranted by the potential returns.
Are the minimal Apple TV sales because it’s not part of an integrated television set, or are they because the company is still yet to differentiate itself in the smart TV segment? The STB may well fit in neatly with the rest of the iTunes ecosystem, but without App Store access there’s really no great advantage to Apple TV versus, say, a Roku box. The basics of Netflix and other streaming services are accommodated and the interface, though slick enough, isn’t considerably better than what rivals offer.
Jumping into segments for the sake of it isn’t Apple’s style. Is the company cooking up prototypes? Undoubtedly, and it probably has been for a while. Is there a fair chance those prototypes will end up on storeroom shelves next to Apple’s netbook prototypes? Definitely, yes. In the end, the TV industry doesn’t have a problem with hardware – sets from Sony, Samsung, LG, and others are capable of great image quality, after all – but with software and usability, and Apple needn’t recreate the wheel to tackle that.