It's now been three years since Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) gave its set-top streaming box a meaningful refresh. Technically, the company quietly updated the Apple TV internals in 2013, but that was only to swap out a 32-nanometer A5 with a 28-nanometer A5. I doubt consumers noticed the difference in die size. Investors have been hearing about a refresh all year, with some reports initially suggesting a new model would be unveiled at Apple's WWDC in June.
The storyline has evolved and new hardware is now expected within a month, likely to be shown off alongside the next iPhone 6s. The update can't come soon enough.
We're No. 4! We're No. 4!
Market researcher Parks Associates has put out a new report on how the streaming media device market fared last year. Importantly, Apple ceded its No. 3 spot to Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN), as the e-tailer jumped in last year with Fire TV and Fire TV Stick. At this point, Apple, Amazon, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG)(NASDAQ:GOOGL), and Roku are completely dominating the streaming media device market, gobbling up a combined 86% of all units in 2014. Roku led the pack with 34% unit market share, followed by Google with 23% share.
Parks Associates estimates that one in five U.S. households now own at least one streaming media device. That level of penetration suggests that this market still has room to grow, even domestically, especially as cord-cutting continues and consumers look for alternative ways to get their entertainment.
Your move, Apple
The streaming media device market is undoubtedly evolving. In a way, it's also bifurcating, much like the smartphone market. At a time when Google and Amazon are gaining share with lower-cost devices like the $35 Chromecast and $39 Fire TV Stick, the fact that Roku is the market leader suggests that there is still demonstrable demand at higher price points closer to $100, since Roku's flagship Roku 3 is priced at $100.
For the most part, Google is sticking in the low end with Chromecast, lacking higher-end offerings. Perhaps Google learned its lesson with the terribly misguided Nexus Q. Amazon is playing both ends: the $100 Fire TV complements the Fire TV stick. The Fire TV is currently out of stock, suggesting that a refresh may be imminent. Roku plays the field with a $50 Roku Streaming Stick and three generations of its boxes priced at $50, $70, and $100, respectively.
Apple's decision to drop the Apple TV's price to $69 in June could very well be a precursor. If the rumored new model materializes next month, I would expect it to take the $99 price point but come with a slew of new features to justify the premium like a new design and a touch-based remote. Most notably, Apple is expected to finally open up the platform to third-party developers. An Apple TV lineup consisting of an older $69 model and a newer $99 model fits squarely within its M.O.
Not that it provided much of a competitive advantage, but the HBO Now exclusivity period has now come to an end. In order to reclaim some market share, it's time for a new model.