The One Reason Apple Hasn’t Solved TV’s Cables and Remotes Problem

September 25th, 2014

How many remote controls do you have for your TV? Do you care to describe the tangle of cables and wires connecting your various components?

If you’re like almost everyone I know, the answers are “at least three, probably five” and “No!”

Have you had a housesitter recently? How long did it take for you to explain which remotes to use, in what order, to  watch TV or switch to a DVD or Netflix? Change the channel? Adjust the volume? Did they take notes?

If you’re like everyone I know, the answers are “at least five minutes” and “Hell yes they took notes.”

Nobody these days can walk into a friend’s house and watch TV without detailed instructions. If you’re like everyone I know, even you need to pull out various manuals and flail around at least once every year or two.

I’ve wondered for years: why hasn’t Apple solved this? Imagine a TV that includes everything including a quality sound amp, with one remote and an elegant user interface. The only things plugged in are cable (maybe), ethernet (maybe), and surround speakers (maybe).

Doesn’t that seem like the kind of thing Apple could do brilliantly?

They could be selling tens (hundreds?) of millions of 30-, 40-, 50-, 70-inch TVs at very high tickets. Yeah, the margins on TVs suck, but that was true of cell phones too, wasn’t it? Ditto desktop and laptop computers.

Apple knows how to add value to otherwise-commodity items, and charge serious money for it. People pay the premium, and Apple gets its unheard-of margins, because their elegant integration is worth it.

So why haven’t they done that for TVs?

My answer, in two (or three) words: set-top boxes. That box is the only thing maintaining cable companies’ ever-more-tenuous control over viewers’ content choices — in particular, controlling access to quality feeds of live sports.

The big breakthrough of ITunes wasn’t (just) the user interface. It was the deals that Steve Jobs cut with content providers, making any content from any of the providers simply and intuitively and instantly accessible.

It’s hard to imagine that the cable companies will cede that kind of control to Apple, at least until straits get as dire as they did for the music industry. Unless Tim Cook is a much more brilliant negotiator than I think he is (or than Steve Jobs was), we’re stuck with set-top boxes for the duration. So we’re stuck in component world, with multiple remotes and cables and multiple interacting user interfaces.

If Apple can’t integrate the set-top box and its UI, and the control over content that goes with it, into the TV, they can’t provide a seamless user interface. No seamless interface, no big margins. And the Apple business model is, in two brief words, “high margins.”

So if you’re reading some article among the endless stream of articles over the years about Apple selling TVs, ask yourself one question: what’s with the set-top box? Has Apple managed to cut a deal with the cable companies?

Cross-posted at Asymptosis.

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