A volte-face – Apple should start selling TVs

Apple has just reported yet another record quarter. As a company it is experiencing revenue growth rarely seen in any sector. Looking at its financials closely reveals that the company that once built its reputation as a computer manufacturer is now, for all intents and purposes, a mobile device manufacturer. It is striking that desktops now only account for about 5% of all of Apple’s revenues. But the continued success of all these mobile devices only serves to highlight where Apple is so very weak – the living room.

There has been a great deal of speculation about whether Apple will develop its own TV to compete with Samsung, LG et al. And much of this speculation has been typically quite uncritical. For a long time, I felt that the failure of the Apple TV set-top box highlighted that the company would not succeed as hyperbolically with a TV as they have with other products. However, researching a partially-related connected device dataset – due to be published in September for Informa clients – have led me to what could be described as a Road to Damascus moment. And I now feel whole heartedly that Apple needs to start selling a TV, and that it will succeed if it does so.

When I say need, I do not mean for the company, which is clearly doing very well being a mobile device manufacturer, thank you very much. No, when I say need, I mean for the sake of the consumer, who appears to have been forgotten by the TV manufacturers.

The biggest fault of TV manufacturers is the extent to which they have pursued market segmenting. Of course not everyone can, or wants to, buy a US$4000 65” LED 3D TV, so smaller LCD TVs are needed. But does LG really need to sell 11 different 40” TVs? Does Samsung need to sell 12 different 55” TVs, all of which cost within $400 or each other? The differences between these TVs are minimal at most. The two more expensive sets offer better contrast ratios than the others, and the most expensive has a slightly smaller frame, but nothing more consequential. Indeed, the difference between these more expensive TVs and their cheaper sibling is that they offer 3D and have – wait for it – a four-legged stand not a flat stand.

The problem above is compounded further with manufacturers treating each device as a product in its own right. With this multitude of devices come such catchy names as UN55D8000YF, 55LW5600, and TC-P55VT30. Shakespeare may have questioned what was in a name, and whether a rose would be as sweet by any other name, but I don’t think he had this in mind. Recommendations from peers and family are a key part of any product launch, but the TV manufacturers don’t exactly make it easy for consumers to do this.

One consequence of these two factors is that connected TVs are very quickly becoming as generic as its unconnected predecessors, meaning the opportunity to charge a premium for these devices goes out of the window.

How will Apple change all this? It is best to draw from how it has operated in the smartphone and tablet markets. With the iPhone, Apple offers one device and the variations are treated as just this. The user buys an iPhone be that a 32GB or 64GB, or black or white. I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to think that Apple will do much the same if it begun to sell TVs. It would sell an Apple ‘iTV’ which would be broadly the same device regardless of size differences, which users would be able to customize only to a very small degree.

The advantages of this approach are many, but there are two keys ones. Firstly, the consumer will no longer be confused when they attempt to buy a TV. Secondly, Apple will also be able to create around these TVs a brand that will enable them to charge a premium where their main rivals cannot. It is not too late for TV manufacturers to ensure that the connected TV market does not end up as a mirror of the smartphone market. But it is unlikely that these big organizations will be able to affect the sort of change required until it is too late.