Thus far, Netflix
However, the two may become competitors if Apple rolls out a video subscription service of its own -- a possibility that one Wall Street analyst considers imminent.
Appearing on CNBC yesterday afternoon, Jefferies senior technology analyst Peter Misek predicted that as early as next year, Apple would roll out a new video service blending "live television or live broadcasts on a time delay" basis with Internet videos and browsing.
Misek has no evidence to substantiate his claim, just as other analysts' earlier predictions of actual Apple high-def televisions haven't borne fruit. (No pun intended.) The possibility of an Apple video service remains pure speculation at this point. Still, let's follow the breadcrumbs to see how such a scenario might play out -- and whether it would leave Apple and Netflix as partners or bitter rivals.
Home-theater convergence hasn't been the slam dunk it should've been by now. Google
Assuming Misek's claim falls anywhere near eventual reality, what makes him think Apple would succeed with a digital video subscription service next year? The company hasn't even gotten around to a digital music subscription service yet, and it's been selling digital tunes for a few more years than it has movies and television shows.
An Apple video service seems like little threat to Netflix. As Misek envisions it, the service would more likely menace cable and satellite providers, not to mention the content-producing studios who rely on those giants for a steady stream of recurring revenue.
Content providers' crackdowns on Google TV's access to their existing streaming video have become one of the biggest roadblocks to the device's success. Couch potatoes might cheer anything that pushes fat cable bills closer to extinction, but the kind of end-runs Google TV hoped to accomplish ultimately translate into less money for content creators.
Expect similar resistance if Apple goes down the same path. Cable and satellite are ugly industries ripe for disrupting, and I think that anyone who pays for hundreds of digital cable channels when they only watch a dozen would leap at the sort of Apple service Misek imagines. However, the same studios that gave Google a hard time last year won't magically open the gates for Apple next year.
The boob tube is a booby trap
Like Google does today, Apple would face a cruel catch-22 if it launched a streaming video service. Cater strictly to consumers, and studios will shut off their content spigots. Neuter the service to please studios, and no one will want to subscribe to it.
Worse yet, more and more broadband providers are moving to tiered data plans, which clamp down on couch potatoes' ability to stream Internet video to their hearts' content. Consolidation among content-delivery networks may reduce competition and jack up the cost of streaming video, making things even more expensive for the providers. Shares of Netflix took a hit on Monday, presumably because Level 3's
If anything, Netflix might welcome the kind of Apple service Misek imagined. If content providers crack down, and a rival service fails, Netflix has one fewer competitor and an even wider moat. But if Apple, Google, or some other challenger can clear the considerable obstacles and launch dirt-cheap online TV streaming, more consumers will get the courage to cut the cord with cable and satellite -- leaving Netflix waiting with open arms to offer them additional, affordable movies and shows.
Netflix already has more than 20 million subscribers, so it's highly unlikely that anyone will ever come close to matching its pricing and licensing advantage in online video. Thus, Google (and potentially Apple's) catch-22 is ultimately a win-win for Netflix.
Would you buy an Apple television? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.
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Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has been a Netflix shareholder -- and subscriber -- since 2002. Rick is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.