Published August 28, 2012
Everything seems to be going Apple's way. Well, almost everything.
With a billion-dollar judgment in its favor against Samsung, a spectacularly successful tablet steamrolling the market (with a mini version on tap for the fall) and the world awaiting next month's likely new iPhone, Apple is sitting pretty indeed. But the company has been frustrated in one area: television.
Yes, there's the Apple TV box, but it's uncharacteristically awkward and limited. It can't control live TV or the sundry receivers many of us have connected to home theaters. It also doesn't have complete access to the welter of shows, sporting events and movies one would like to see.
Yet Apple clearly wants to do more in the living room. The company has been rumored to be working on an actual television -- a set with built-in capabilities similar to iTunes, streaming online video access and the ability to work with cable services without the need for a separate set-top box. It has even -- unsuccessfully -- touted it to big cable companies, reportedly including carriers in Canada.
Apple's most recent efforts in this area appear to be a throttled-back set-top box that would work with broadcast and cable TV content, obviating the need for cable subscribers to rent a separate $10-a-month set-top box. Conceivably, the Apple box also would include access to online services like Netflix and Hulu, which the existing Apple TV product already does.
But it may be too late for Apple's video desires, and there are already David competitors to its Goliath drawing more attention.
Roku, which has been offering a simple, convenient streaming video box that connects TVs to Internet services, has been expanding its offerings for years. Starting at $49.99, its devices include hundreds of special-interest Internet video channels (pets, guns and Glenn Beck proving to be popular), as well as Netflix and casual games, like Angry Birds.
Roku also recently received a major boost from content providers. Last month, a group of investors led by FoxNews.com parent News Corp. put $45 million into the streaming set-top box pioneer.
"What's happening is exciting," Roku CEO Anthony Wood told FoxNews.com. "There was a shift from over-the-air to cable. Now there's a shift from cable to the Internet." Wood says it means Roku is now a significant distributor of content, just as cable companies distribute programs.
It also signals that more studios and producers may be willing to put their programming out to viewers on boxes like Roku.
Roku will soon launch a flash drive-sized device that will deliver the same services in a compact, even simpler device, but it faces a lot more competition than just Apple and other set-top boxes like Boxee from D-Link and WD TV Live from Western Digital.
Google TV, while struggling with its first awkward attempt, will be making a major push this fall with $99 boxes from major consumer electronics firms like Vizio and Sony. These devices have a major leg up on Apple and streaming set-top boxes like Roku's; Google TV allows users to control existing TVs, cable boxes, home theater receivers, and live TV from one device. All other solutions require viewers to switch TV inputs and juggle multiple remotes.
Further clouding the horizon for the Apple TV and Roku is the fact that many of these features are now built into so-called smart TVs connected to the Internet. Microsoft also has been trying to do what Apple is proposing, pitching its Xbox 360 to studios and television broadcasters with limited success. It's no secret that Microsoft also wants its game console to replace the cable box.
Sony is making similar efforts with its PlayStation 3, and even went so far as to announce that the company would sell a TV that would work with Time Warner cable without a cable box. Alas, that product has yet to see the light of the living room.
Short circuiting the shift that Roku's Wood describes from cable to the Internet are the cable companies themselves, who are notoriously stubborn about protecting their existing business. Remember Cable Cards that were mandated by law to free us from the monthly cable box charges? Cable companies stifled those handily.
On the other hand, the shifting viewing habits of the next generation of video consumers may disrupt cable companies, consumer electronics firms, and Apple altogether.
The incoming college class of 2016 doesn't think of TV the way previous generations have. As freshman start class this year, the annual Beloit College Mindset List was released offering insights into the changing nature of incoming students. According to the list, incoming students "watch television everywhere but on a television." Smartphones, tablets and laptop computers are more likely to be their primary video screens.
So in a few years, the battle between Apple, Google and cable companies over control of the living room TV may look quaintly old-fashioned.