Many Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) fans, investors, and analysts were surprised when The Wall Street Journal reported Cupertino has shelved its plans to bring a ultra-high definition television set to market over a year ago. According to "people familiar with the matter," Apple could not differentiate from TV sets on the market enough with compelling, breakthrough features in order to justify its entrance into a competitive market.
Among Apple analysts, the news that Apple shelved its television plans came as a surprise to some and confirmation to others. Count Piper Jaffray's Apple analyst, Gene Munster, among the surprised, has perhaps been the most vocal about Apple's TV plans, warning fans that Apple TV was coming to market as early as 2011. In an appearance on CNBC's "Squawk Alley," Munster appeared downright solemn with his mea culpa: "This is a tough day for me. It's a hard reality to accept, and I think that is the reality of it: the TV is on hold."
Others, myself fortunately included, thought Apple's plans for a television would not come to fruition for a simple reason: gross margins. Simply put, the television business isn't as lucrative as Apple desires and it appears Apple could not find enough truly differentiating features to justify higher-cost, premium TV sets. For Apple investors, that's important insight into this company.
Brand is important and Apple can still shape TV
It's been said that Apple doesn't create products -- it recreates products. And it's good to see Apple working on new products -- even if those ideas never come to fruition. As an investor, I consider this failure to be a positive for the stock -- Apple could have pushed forward with another "me-too" television set with no breakthroughs and a high price. The company would probably sell significant units, particularly in the early adoption phase, but the company's valuable brand could suffer as a result.
In the CNBC interview, Munster asked an important question, "What is their [Apple's] strategy in the living room?" I think focusing on hardware is slightly myopic in regards to Apple's living-room plans. Apple is working with content providers and media companies to reportedly offer a skinny bundle of TV services this fall. Apple's living-room strategy appears to be in the content-delivery space (the pipes) versus an actual piece of hardware.
And while content delivery may not be as interesting as an actual device, Apple stands to gain from cable-provider antipathy. For those questioning Apple's ability to disrupt content-delivery models, look no further than iTunes and the music industry -- remember Tower Records? In the end, working as a streaming-delivery service should be better for margins than entering a commoditized TV business.
Curious timing and a curious omission
Perhaps the most interesting subplot of Apple's WSJ release was its timing. Earlier that day, famed activist investor Carl Icahn released (another!) open letter to Tim Cook imploring the company to buy back stock as the company was undervalued. In his letter, Icahn used favorable assumptions and scenarios, among them a 2016 release of an Apple TV set. For Apple, a company notoriously committed to new-product secrecy, shooting down rumors of an Apple TV set after Icahn's letter seems like direct pushback.
However, Apple did not specifically shoot down reports regarding its rumored automobile unit. More recently, rumors about Apple's "Project Titan" have heated up with conflicting reports of an autonomous vehicle coming from Reuters and a conventional, electric automobile from The Wall Street Journal. Although Apple is under no obligation to discuss any product, its silence, juxtapose the TV statement, is deafening.
Of course, in the end the automobile could meet the same fate as the television -- after years of research and development, Cupertino could decide the product isn't worth the hassle. Fellow Fool Evan Niu called one of Apple's greatest strengths the ability to say "no." For investors, it appears the company is focused on releasing new products that fit its brand and margin profiles, rather than releasing products simply for the sake of releasing products.