The Wall Street Journal reported last night that Apple and Comcast are discussing a partnership for Apple to launch a streaming TV, VOD and DVR service, including dedicated Comcast bandwidth (a "managed service" as opposed to one delivered with typical "best efforts").
On the surface, it's a sexy-sounding deal, especially for those who have long-harbored a vision of Apple moving beyond its modest Apple TV device. However, scratch the surface just a little and you'll quickly find many reasons to be skeptical anything will result. Here are my top 5 (I'm sure there are others as well):
1. Limited white space for Apple - The way the WSJ article reads, it sounds like Apple is thinking of a service that essentially "out-cable's cable" - providing Apple technology and a user experience to make it more user-friendly. That's a worthwhile goal, but aside from the fanboy population, is it enough to get people to subscribe? (this raises another question for Comcast, more on that below).
As I've argued many times, the main complaint people have about pay-TV is its high cost, so lower prices are the quickest way to gain appeal. But Apple's positioning is never about price, it's always about quality. So it's unlikely Apple would even try to offer a much cheaper service. And 90% of U.S. homes already take pay-TV so there's not much new terrain. So maybe Apple's not thinking of a full-blown pay-TV competitor - but then what? An SVOD service to compete with Netflix, Amazon, etc.? Not much room there. A sell-through model? Apple already dominates this, with iTunes. So what exactly would Apple offer that would be clearly differentiated? Where's the opportunity?
2. Why does Comcast want to enable an Apple pay-TV service? Let's assume Apple does aspire to offer a competitive pay-TV service over Comcast's broadband network. Why would Comcast even want to enable this? This is a head-scratcher, especially given all the investment Comcast is putting into its X1 platform and improving its own user experiences (which began to pay off in Q4 with new subscriber additions). Why would Comcast diminish its own efforts by offering an Apple option?
Yes, the deal would generate some Apple fee income, and maybe Apple would gain some subscribers beyond what Comcast could do itself, but it doesn't seem that strategic. Rather it seems competitive. Comcast, like other operators, wants to control the customer relationship, for good reason. Finding a deal that works for both sides seems improbable.
3. Apple has no record of getting content deals done - Even assuming somehow Comcast gets on board with Apple offering a pay-TV service, Apple still has to get deals with all the cable TV networks to assemble a competitive lineup. But despite years of discussions with networks and studios, Apple has never gotten traction outside the straightforward iTunes sell-through model. Outsiders like Intel Media and Sezmi highlight the inherent difficulties of getting deals done; these are hard economic truths Apple already knows about.
4. ISP landscape fragmented, inhibiting Apple's scale - One of Apple's great strengths is that it operates at global scale. For example, when the iPhone 5 launched, Apple released it in 31 countries within 3 months. Apple should expect nothing like this in the U.S. where Comcast only gives Apple access to about a third of the market. Then Apple has to replicate the deal across dozens of other ISPs. Dealing with this type of go-to-market friction is not how Apple operates, nor a recipe for making a big impact quickly.
5. Regulatory risk for Comcast relative to Time Warner Cable - With its deal for TWC, Comcast will be walking a huge regulatory tightrope for approvals. Broadband is going to receive disproportionate attention for lots of good reasons. As just one example of the potshots Comcast will be taking, last week, Netflix's CEO Reed Hastings assailed the exact type of interconnection deal he just signed with Comcast. Expect lots more of these along the way.
The managed service arrangement Comcast is reportedly talking to Apple about is legal under today's regulatory framework. But it is just the type of deal that net neutrality proponents will easily cast as "anti-innovation," "discriminatory," and evidence of "toll-collecting" in the current environment of obfuscation. Choosing to pursue such a deal with Apple now would only add to the complex regulatory battle Comcast has ahead of it.
No doubt there is much more to the discussions than the WSJ wrote, so perhaps some of the above concerns will be mitigated. We'll have to stand by to see.