There have always been problems that Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) would have to address before entering the TV market. The first of which is the "go-to-market strategy," according to Steve Jobs. The structure of the television market has always inherently entailed a subsidized set-top box, which hinders innovation as it reduces consumer propensity to pay for innovative features.
The second problem has always been solving the overwhelming number of interfaces that result in a disjointed user experience. Some recent figures from NPD reinforce that notion.
Spoiler alert: People use TVs to watch TV
In a recent study, the researcher found that the most common usage model of smart TVs was to... watch TV! While that result is entirely expected, what's really shocking is the significant lack of other types of usage, despite their availability. Many smart TVs today are fully capable of accessing social networks, video calling, playing casual games, and browsing the web, among other things.
The problem is people simply aren't doing them. One exception is that consumers are tapping into online music streaming services like Pandora (NYSE:P) about 15% of the time. Part of it is that consumers are likely entrenched in historical behavioral models where the TV is just a TV, despite the additional functionalities that manufacturers are now building in.
Why ask why?
Another possibility is that consumers are turning to set-top boxes for some of these functions instead of performing them directly on the smart TV itself. For example, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) has continued to teach the Xbox 360 new tricks, including an upcoming launch of over 40 television apps for its Xbox Live service, not to mention its rumored Xbox TV.
That can cause some confusion, as there are numerous ways to utilize roughly the same TV app. On top of that, there's a growing trend toward what NPD calls "content throwing," where a user can wirelessly beam content from a mobile device like a smartphone or tablet to the larger screen. That includes Microsoft's SmartGlass and Apple's AirPlay, among others, which is also made possible by a third-party accessory device.
NPD figures that in order to drive consumer adoption of additional usage models, TV makers "need to need to focus less on new innovation in this space and more on simplification of the user experience and messaging."
It just so happens that's what Apple does best
Reinventing the TV interface is precisely what's needed here. It's worth noting that this is exactly what Apple did in smartphones. Prior to the iPhone, smartphones were capable of many of the same things they are today, except people simply didn't do them because the interfaces were so confusing.
This video of Steve Jobs at D3 in 2005 serves as a good reminder. The iPhone was yet to be released, but Jobs describes (around the 6:30 mark) how carriers pressured smartphone OEMs to focus on higher-quality cameras in phones. The hope was that users would turn into shutterbugs and share all those photos over 3G networks, thereby driving increases in data usage and fees and average revenue per user, or ARPU.
Unfortunately for the carriers, this wasn't panning out as predicted and ARPUs were flat. The problem? Jobs offered that maybe it was "because the user interface is so crazy that nobody can figure out how to do it." Kara Swisher agreed that was probably the culprit.
The iPhone heralded the modern smartphone interface, and data usage (and carrier ARPU) has been on the rise ever since. Apple needs to do this exact same thing in TVs: integrate all the necessary functionalities in a simple user interface that offers a consistent experience. Fortunately, that's exactly what Apple does best.
A big difference is the middlemen in the equation. In smartphones, carriers wanted to drive increased usage and fees so were willing to play ball, even if that inevitably meant giving up some control to Apple. In TV, cable operators and content creators have less immediate incentive to embrace a new structure since smart TVs with Internet content threaten to disrupt their traditional cable businesses.
There's some cord-cutting going on, but it hasn't been enough to truly scare the incumbents into action. For example, Time Warner (NYSE:TWX) CEO Jeff Bewkes recently said fears over cord-cutting are overblown and mostly limited to a small demographic of low-income Americans. However, Bewkes acknowledges that "cord nevers," those of the younger generation who have never had cable, are more of a concern. Oddly enough, he's also the same exec that can't wait for an Apple TV.
Apple may be the only tech giant with enough weight to restructure the TV industry with a new interface and user experience.
Fool contributor Evan Niu, CFA, owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and Microsoft. Motley Fool newsletter services recommend Apple and Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.