Wednesday, September 10, 2014, 11:34 AM ET|Posted by Will Richmond
Yesterday Apple launched two new iPhones, a payment system and a smart watch. But one thing it didn't launch was an actual Apple smart TV, or an upgraded version of its existing hockey puck Apple TV device.
Of course, given the pre-event rumorathon, nobody really expected anything on the TV front yesterday. Whereas just a couple of years ago an Apple smart TV in particular was seen as inevitable - and just around the corner - talk of it has now virtually evaporated. While online video adoption has continued to surge, spurring a range of companies to stake claims in the digital living room, Apple has been silent, not even hinting that a bigger play in the living room is on its strategic roadmap. In my opinion that's a big missed opportunity.
Skeptics have offered many reasons over the years for why Apple hasn't introduced an actual smart television: TV ecosystem incumbents are too strong and Apple is feared/can't get them on board, there's too little room to maneuver and innovate, the ultra price-sensitive television manufacturing business precludes Apple's fat margins, broad consumer acceptance of smart TVs doesn't exist, cheap connected TV devices are slowing expensive television replacement cycles and so on.
All of these reasons are valid to one extent or another. And certainly, given these complexities, a smart watch looks like a much cleaner product play for Apple. But still, the nagging question remains - is the most innovative company in the world really NOT going to push as hard as it possibly can to own the digital living room, through which the greatest number of consumer and advertising dollars flow?
Apple's absence has helped create a big opportunity for others to gain a foothold, each with their own strategies. Among smaller companies, Roku has recently launched its line of Roku TVs, manufactured by Chinese TV partners, as well as introduced its "Roku Powered" licensing program for pay-TV operators. TiVo has forged numerous alliances with smaller pay-TV operators to both power their in-home subscriber experiences and integrate additional OTT content, such as Netflix.
Among the giants, Google has enjoyed early success with Chromecast and is now rolling out Android TV (and continues to ride a huge content wave with YouTube). Amazon has woken up to online video's opportunities as well, producing its own originals and introducing the Fire TV connected TV device. Perhaps more importantly, it has shelled out over a billion dollars for Twitch, which operates at the intersection of gaming, live-streaming and advertising.
Meanwhile, pay-TV operators recognize consumer behaviors and expectations are changing fast. They know that innovating their subscribers' experiences, both in and out of the home, is critical. A particular sensitivity is younger "cord-nevers" who are increasingly satisfied with online-only options and are at risk of never becoming pay-TV subscribers. All of this makes them potentially more open to new partners like Apple.
For consumers, managing their media and enjoying cross-screen experiences remains complicated. Nearly 2 years ago I asserted that Apple had a big opportunity in delivering improved user experiences across screens. Rather than emphasizing larger-size TVs and better resolution, a significant payoff awaited the company that could pull everything together for consumers.
Apple seemed well-positioned to play that role then, and still does now. Smart watches may prove to be a big new category for Apple (though with a starting price of $350, one has to wonder just how big), but TV and online video are existing, multi-billion dollar markets undergoing fundamental disruption. It's confounding that Apple still doesn't have a digital living room strategy, and even harder to believe that will remain the case.