Apple settles into the set-top

The tea leaves are not looking good lately those anticipating the imminent arrival of an Apple iTV. A pair of recent news leaks this week point to Apple preparing to hunker down for the long haul with the current configuration of Apple TV as a set-top streaming box rather than for the conquest of the living room or the overthrow of the pay-TV business.

In the beginning of the week, Engadget spied an Apple FCC filing describing an Apple TV set-top box with marginally different dimensions than the current box, hinting at the possibility that Apple was about to introduce a new version with some important new functionality. Meanwhile, 9to5 Mac flagged an Apple TV software update that includes reference to a new model number, adding to speculation that an important update was in the works.

Alas, closer inspection of the FCC filing and the update’s source code found very little to get excited about. The main differences between Apple 3,2, as the new model is referred to in the software update, and the current 3,1 version are a new wireless chip –the same low-power dual-band 40nm Broadcom BCM4334 chip used in the iPhone 5 — and a new CPU – the same s5l8947x ‘A5x’ processor used in the latest iPads.

An Apple spokesperson issued the following statement:

We sometimes make component changes which require an updated model number for regulatory approval. The component changes we made don’t affect product features and Apple TV customers will continue to have the same great user experience.

The swapped-out components, in fact, suggest Apple expects to be cranking out more or less the same set-top box for some time yet. The new components consist of chips it is already buying in bulk for other products. It’s a cost-savings move, in other words, aimed at making the manufacturing and supply chain of the current Apple TV set-top a little more efficient.

That’s not the sort of move a company makes when it’s about to make a major strategic move in a product category.

On Thursday came another leak: According to Bloomberg, the HBO Go app could be coming to Apple TV within the next few months. Anyone hoping the network might make HBO Go available a la carte will be disappointed, however.  According to Bloomberg’s sources, access to HBO Go content on Apple TV will be restricted to authenticated users who subscribe to HBO via cable or satellite, just as on every other device where it appears.

Apple, in other words, was not able to wring any concessions out of HBO that might have challenged the pay-TV status quo. Instead, it appears to be conceding that it remains at the mercy of the networks when it comes to providing TV content to Apple users. HBO Go has become a must-have app for any connected video device, just as Netflix is; adding it to Apple TV, on HBO’s terms, is essentially a defensive competitive move by Apple, not a sign that it has gained the upper hand on programmers.

In Apple’s first-quarter earnings call, CEO Tim Cook said TV remains an “area of intense interest” for Apple. “I tend to believe that there’s a lot we can contribute in this space. And so we continue to pull the string and see where it leads us,” Cook said. It still has a long way to unravel.

 

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Paul Sweeting

Principal Concurrent Media Strategies

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  1. Apple often surprises us with minimalism. Recently the mini, dished by pundits was a smash success. Going way back, Apple were the first to ditch the diskette. Can we imagine how Apple might use this device, an iOS platform, without requiring that we buy an Apple integrated screen?

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