Apple’s TV Everywhere strategy coming into focus?

One tradition Apple CEO Tim Cook has carried on from his predecessor Steve Jobs is being coy about Apple’s TV plans. When asked in public he has hewed to vague assertions about TV being an area of “keen interest” to Apple and of “exciting products” in the pipeline yadda yadda. But a series of recent moves by the company offers some hints of what Apple’s TV strategy ultimately will look like, and it’s looking less than ever like one involving any sort of integrated iTV display.

Instead, the emerging strategy appears to be based around a set-top box, presumably an updated version of the current Apple TV STB, that will integrate linear channels and over-the-top content, along with gaming, in a single UI that can be navigated either directly on screen or from a iPad via AirPlay, and  connected with iTunes, the App Store and iCloud.

Critically, however, Apple does not appear to be targeting cord-cutters. Instead, it appears to envision a kind of universal, authenticated TV Everywhere service that would be implemented on an Apple streaming platform and would be available alongside Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube and other OTT channels in the Apple TV set-top.

Here’s what the trail of breadcrumbs looks like so far:

The Information reported this week that Apple’s plans to launch its new all-in-one STB have been pushed back to 2015, citing Apple engineers who have been working on the project. Among the reasons for the delay, according to the website’s Apple sources, was foot-dragging by cable operators and complications arising from the pending Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger. For their part, cable operators are pointing the finger back at Apple, claiming it needs to make more progress is securing rights from multiple types of rights holders to offer the service it wants to offer.

From that report we can deduce that existing pay-TV providers will be part of the mix, but so too are the networks and TV rights owners. In other words, the envisioned service would be an extension of traditional linear pay-TV service, not a replacement for it, requiring the cooperation of both traditional pay-TV providers and TV rights owners. The pending Comcast-TWC merger would certainly complicate those plans given the uncertainty at this point as to whether it will be approved by regulators, or what conditions regulators might impose on the parties as part of its approval.

That view is bolstered by the news this week that Apple has added CNBC’s linear feed to Apple TV, but only for authenticated pay-TV subscribers. The addition of CNBC follows on the additions of two other broadcast channels to Apple TV set-tops back in June, including non-authenticated services from ABC News and PBS.

Creating a universal TV Everywhere service would also be in keeping with Apple’s historical pattern of leveraging consumers’ existing investments to build new products and services. When first introduced, iTunes was an application for managing your CD collection. Remember: “Rip, Mix, Burn.” Only after iTunes had taken over everyone’s hard drive music collection and was being used to move music from PC to iPod did Apple launch the iTunes Music Store for downloaded music.

Ditto the iPhone. Apple leveraged consumers’ existing investment in basic mobile voice and text service to introduce new functionality via the iPhone.

Leveraging consumers’ investment in pay-TV to launch a new, Apple-y service on top of it would simply be playing to type. As that investment wanes or becomes more a la carte as more people cut the cord, Apple would then be well positioned to pick up the pieces. In the meantime, Apple would be building a new install base of connected TV set-tops to provide a market for new video services developed directly on Apple’s apps platform, including live TV services.

The strongest evidence that Apple is planning to launch a TV Everywhere service in partnership with pay-TV providers, however, may be in what Apple hasn’t done. Streaming Media executive VP Dan Rayburn reported on his blog this week that Apple’s CDN is now live in the U.S. and Europe and that Apple has put “massive capacity” in place — on the order of 10X the capacity it currently buys from third-party CDNs.

Notably, Apple has built its CDN will little of the fuss that has accompanied Netflix’s CDN rollout. According to Rayburn, Apple has signed interconnection deals with Comcast and other leading ISPs to deliver traffic directly onto their last mile networks, with none of the public finger-pointing aimed at ISPs seen recently from Netlfix, YouTube and other major OTT providers.

Apple has also refrained from filing comments critical of ISPs’ peering policy with the FCC as part of its net neutrality rulemaking procedure, as both Netflix and Major League Baseball Advanced Media have done. Clearly, Apple doesn’t see cable-based ISPs as quite the implacable obstacle to its TV plans as other OTT providers do.

It would rather kill them with kindness.