As a matter of public record, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) is on the books saying it will introduce at least one new product in 2014.
For investors weary of Apple's sagging growth rates, the possibility of Apple adding another growth driver is clearly attractive. And if recent reports are any indication, Apple could be one step closer to delivering its now-promised product.
The media has been abuzz today with news that Apple is in on-going talks with cable powerhouse Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC) over a possible deal that could pave the way for Apple to launch a next-gen Apple TV as early as April.
However, investors should pause before they get too excited about this seemingly significant development. Because sadly, if the reports are true (big if), the Apple TV product this deal could lead to isn't the Apple TV many of us had hoped for.
Apple & Time Warner: No game-changer
Although Apple-Time Warner Cable discussions make for an encouraging headline, the headlines lose some of their luster pretty quickly when unpacked further.
At least going off today's reports, the discussion between Apple and Time Warner Cable appear to be all about bringing more content to Apple TV. At present, Apple TV offers access to content from many of media's biggest names like ESPN, HBO, ABC, The Disney Channel, Showtime, Bloomberg, and so on. However, users must provide verification that they indeed already have a cable subscription before being able to access the content through those apps.
Unfortunately, the deal potential deal with Time Warner Cable appears likely to be in the same vein of providing greater access more content that Time Warner Cable offers its cable subscribers, but still with the catch that consumers must have a cable subscription in order to access the content through Apple TV.
And although the details of the deal could certainly fundamentally differ from what's being reported today, it appears the discussions amount to a distribution deal, and that's really it.
Better packaging, same old system
However if this is the extent of Apple's coming TV product, it falls well short of the kind of landscape redefining change Apple has created in past product categories it entered.
Before he passed away, Steve Job famously declared he had finally "cracked" the problem of today's less-than-stellar TV viewing experience, leading to speculation that Apple would enter the market relatively quickly. Now nearly two and a half years after Jobs' passing , the product we're seeing described today would only offer the same TV viewing experience simply fed through a nicer, Apple-designed user interface. Effectively, you'd only be trading in your Time Warner Cable box in exchange for a nicer, sleeker Apple designed version of the same product.
If that's the case, this speaks to the more daunting issues in truly revolutionizing the TV product experience. Many people have cited a la carte viewing as almost inevitable with deep pocketed tech challengers like Apple and Google circling the space. However as we saw with the recent surrender of Intel in its own campaign to do exactly that, the current vested interests controlling content and distribution models will be hard to overcome. The Apple-TWC talks highlight the same issue. There's simply too much money flowing between the the content producers and the cable providers to make it worth it for the content providers to break the current modus operandi.
Until someone can come up with a compelling enough reason for the content providers to walk away from the billions of dollars in programming fees they currently receive, Apple's next-gen Apple TV we're hearing about today could be as good as consumers can hope for.
Still in the works
Breaking down the business implications of this deal is further complicated for a number of reasons.
For starters, both Apple and Time Warner Cable are being unsurprisingly tight-lipped about the talks. The other major wrinkle is the other major TMT storylines de jour, that Comcast has reached an agreement in principle to acquire Time Warner. There are plenty of regulatory hurdles to clear before the deal becomes a reality, but with another entrenched player that owns plenty of content producers.
However, as one of the industries most often talked about as a potential new market for Apple, these discussions today are clearly worth investors attention. However, they just might not be worth their excitement just yet.