Last week, it seemed as though the way we consume culture was going to be changed forever. And then, nothing happened. Of course, a change like this had to be something Apple-related. This time, the word was that the forthcoming 'Apple TV' wasin talks with U.S. cable providers to allow the company to use an Apple device as a set-top box for live television and other content.
What is the Apple TV? Actually, the question should really be “What is the ‘Apple TV’ that everyone’s so excited about?,” because, as Derek Thompson at The Atlantic points out, there is, confusingly, already an “Apple TV”, which he describes as a “a little hockey-puck device that connects your TV to the Internet and lets you play HD content from Netflix, Hulu, or the iTunes store.”
So, to be clear: The “Apple TV” that set off talk of a revolution in entertainment last week is a name chiefly employed by analysts and sundry commentators for a product that has yet to actually hit the market. Indeed, it’s hard even to say what’s “known” about the product as of yet, because much of what’s available on it is really speculation and, of course, hype.
In January, the Washington Post described the product as a “full-sized television set featuring live-streaming of cable and network TV content as well as full integration with digital content from Apple iTunes and partner content product providers like Netflix.” The Washington Post further indicated that the product would likely feature a voice or gesture activated interface and a simplified remote control. In the course of a single broadcast on Bloomberg Surveillance earlier this year, analyst Shannon Cross suggested a 2013 launch date and suggested the product would be an update of the existing Apple TV, while analyst Gene Muster suggested the new product would be, “the biggest thing in consumer electronics since the smart-phone … We bet that it gets announced late this year … I think they can do some really innovative things, not only around the design of the TV, but also around how consumers consume content.”
It's the meaning behind that last phrase which has since fueled speculation, as it’s been interpreted to mean that the new product would enable consumers to put an end to their subjugation to the current model of paying for television, under which they pay for a bundle of channels (and thereby subsidize many that they won’t ever actually watch.) In other words, this new Apple TV would do to the cable package what the iTunes store once did to the album when it began charging $.99 each for individual songs.
Derek Thompson argues that today is no “Napster” moment, citing that Netflix pays hefty sums for the rights to shows it streams and that Apple’s talks actually signify that it has given up on paying for licensing of content due to cost (which seems to be the required route to the promised land of un-bundling). Thompson's point that neither Apple, nor media companies themselves turning a profit on the bundle model even in the age of Netflix, currently have any great financial incentive to overturn the reigning model of content consumption, is certainly difficult to argue.
But, it may be that there's still a disruptive potential in "just" an Apple TV-Internet convergence interface, even if it's not as immediate or singular as some might hope. There are could be any number of sources for the shift in the way TV is consumed: Netflix, Youtube, and Hulu have all begun producing their own, TV-like content, and some analysts say that start ups with names like "Skitter" and "Aero" may revolutionize how pay TV works. Perhaps, by beginning to move between TV and web content via the forthcoming Apple TV, viewers will develop a reflex to consume video content in the same way they consume music; and the economic structures will follow.