Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) has a well-earned reputation for secrecy. While rival tech firms often tout upcoming products years before they're released, Apple executives rarely, if ever, discuss the company's plans in advance.
Well, unless they're talking about TV.
Analysts have been anticipating an Apple-made television set since at least 2009, and for good reason: Apple's management has made no secret of their desire to enter the TV market. Steve Jobs told his biographer, Walter Isaacson, of his plans to create a TV as far back as 2011. His successor, Tim Cook, seems to mention Apple's "great interest" in television in nearly every major media interview or conference call.
Most recently, Re/code's Peter Kafka reports that Apple is negotiating with content providers, trying to break into the TV business yet again. Kafka's report is merely another in a steady stream of rumors surrounding Apple's alleged television plans that have trickled out in recent years. Of course, It could all be an elaborate ruse, but a more full-featured Apple TV would certainly make sense strategically.
But when Apple's television set finally arrives, will it be too late? The TV landscape has changed radically over the last five years, and the pace of change seems likely to quicken in the near future. Although Apple itself has contributed to that change, time appears to be running out.
This isn't the 1970s anymore
"If we're really honest, [TV is] stuck back in the [1970s] ... It almost feels like you're rewinding the clock and you've entered a time capsule and gone backwards," Tim Cook told Charlie Rose in an interview last year.
Is that really true? If you have an ancient cable box and an old TV, that may be the case. But the technology surrounding its delivery has improved meaningfully in recent years. There's no harm in exaggerating to make a point, but Cook may be stretching it a bit.
Internet-connected set-top boxes -- including Apple's own Apple TV -- are flourishing. Apple has sold 25 million Apple TVs; Roku has sold at least 10 million Roku players. Google has not released official numbers for Chromecast, but estimates last year put it around the 4 million mark. Amazon's Fire TV and Fire TV Stick have been among its best-selling electronics since they made their debuts in 2014.
Cable companies have also begun to meaningfully improve their offerings: Comcast's X1 platform makes on-demand content more accessible than ever before, with built-in access to a cloud-based DVR.
Internet-connected "smart" TVs now make up nearly half of all TV shipments, and are projected to be in the overwhelming majority by 2017. Sets from Sony, Sharp, and Philips will soon ship with Google's Android TV platform -- sets from TCL come with Roku's.
Modern video game consoles are powerful multimedia boxes in their own right. Microsoft's Xbox One -- which was the best-selling video game console in the U.S. in both November and December -- even gives owners the ability to control a cable box with voice commands and gesture controls.
The bundle is already collapsing
Consumers are clearly taking advantage of this new technology. According to Parks Associates, roughly half of the content Americans watched on TV sets last year was non-linear (streamed or recorded) -- up from just 38% in 2010, and a far cry from 1970s-style broadcasts. Moreover, among those age 18 to 44, most of their TV time is now spent with non-linear programming.
In the past, some argued that Apple could shake up the TV space by breaking up the cable bundle -- offering customers channels on a truly a la carte basis, in a similar fashion to what it did with the iPod and the classic album bundle.
But that's already happening - without Apple.
Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime are legitimate alternatives to the traditional cable complex, with hundreds of shows, and an increasing array of critically acclaimed, exclusive content. Sometime this Spring, HBO will join them, with an Internet-based service for non-cable subscribers -- its competitors, including Showtime and Starz, seem likely to follow.
This week, Dish officially launched Sling TV, an Internet-based mini bundle that includes access to ESPN and AMC Networks. Nickelodeon has announced plans for a children-focused Internet service. CBS now offers CBS All Access. Sony continues to test PlayStation Vue, its Internet-based alternative to cable. Verizon plans an Internet TV service of its own.
Despite these offerings, the cable bundle is still alive and well, and cord-cutters can't get access to everything just yet. But it's clearly disintegrating, and an a la carte future is looking more inevitable by the day.
There's still time, but the market is changing quickly
This isn't to say that the current situation is perfect, or that there's no room for improvement. A fully featured Apple TV -- perhaps one that included access to iOS games, or a radically improved user interface -- would probably sell, and sell well.
But I don't think Apple shareholders should bank on the company revolutionizing the living room (or projecting it into future earnings, like some analysts). A true Apple TV, if it comes, could serve as a central iOS hub; a powerful force to better lock customers into the company's ecosystem.
But a living room revolution? That's already started. Apple is too late.