Why Apple will never make an iTV

Apple TV
Don't hold your breath for an Apple iTV

Apple is making a TV! Apple is not making a TV. It is and it's called iTV! It's not and it wouldn't be called that anyway, it is a silly name.

So goes the schizophrenic debate about whether or not Apple will ever build a television.

People have been talking about it for years. At one point, it was said to be Steve Jobs' final triumph in the making... but it never happened for him. Hell, even Tim Cook has discussed it openly from time to time.

Last week, Cook himself said: "TV is one we continue to have great interest in - I choose my words carefully there - but TV is one of those things that, if we're really honest, is stuck back in the '70s.

"Think how much your life has changed," he said, "and all the things around you that have changed, and yet TV, when you go into the living room to watch TV or wherever it may be, it almost feels like you're rewinding the clock and you've entered a time capsule and you're going backwards. The interface is terrible, I mean it's awful. You watch things when they come on unless you remember to record them."

On that last bit, his birthday is coming up - perhaps someone would like to buy him a TiVo or introduce him to HBO Go or BBC iPlayer?

Why an iTV is unlikely

"The idea that Apple could swoop in and change everything as it did with digital music and the iPod is a complete fantasy"

But of course, he's absolutely right in a sense. There's much about the experience of sitting in front of an episode of Dallas today that's very reminiscent of sitting in front of an episode of Dallas in the late '70s, and it's not just the terrible writing, the ligneous acting and Larry Hagman's impossible eyebrows.

TV is still a glowing rectangle that we stare at for hours at a time while slumped on a sofa. The interfaces are indeed almost universally terrible. Remote controls look the same as they did when I was born.

But the idea that Apple could swoop in, perform a miraculous revolution and change everything in the same way it did with digital music and the iPod is a fantasy.

Cook, to his credit, hints at this notion when in the same interview he says, "The hardest decisions we make are all the things not to work on, frankly. Because there's lots of things we'd like to work on, that we have interest in. But we know we can't do everything great".

Indeed, I don't see how Apple could ever do TV brilliantly and make money at the same time. The company has always been about getting ahead of the game, creating premium products with high margins and setting the table for everyone else.

It likes to manufacture both software and hardware itself. It makes money on every iPhone sale, every iPad sale. None of this will ever be possible with an Apple TV - and it's certainly not ahead of the game on this one.

Apple iTV: how Apple's television will really work


The obstacles

Firstly, the margins are not there in TV production. No one is making money on TVs in 2014. In fact, most of the big names are making losses - big ones at that. And these are big brands with fantastic products that Apple would do well to get anywhere near competing with in terms of quality.

What's more, take a look at the best selling TVs on Amazon and you'll soon see that they're not the bells-and-whistles models you see advertised on TV, they're the much cheaper options with even less comprehensible names. We're talking $300 TVs, not $3,000 ones.

If it did make a TV, Apple would have to buy its panels in from outside and potentially develop from scratch all of the picture processing intricacies that Sony, Samsung and the rest have been developing for a decade or more.

More likely it would get around that by buying in the hardware platform from someone else like a Samsung or an LG, but any vague hope of making a profit on the hardware would be out the window at that point. You'd end up with a Samsung TV with an Apple badge on it and a price tag twice as high - it wouldn't work for Apple or for us as punters.

Secondly, developing a TV simply doesn't fit in with the way Apple has always tackled new product areas.

A phone is a phone mostly anywhere. A tablet is a tablet anywhere. Apple Watch, a MacBook Air, an iPod touch - all the same no matter what country you're in. The apps are the same, the interface is the same. You can make them, ship them the world over and they will sell because they're great products. Only tiny changes are required per territory.

Not so with TVs. You can't just ship a TV to 60 different countries and expect it to work everywhere. It won't. The tuners are the first obvious obstacle - OTA broadcast standards are different everywhere, even between neighbouring European countries. So different countries would need different tuners and processing innards to match.

Then as well as many different forms of OTA, you've got cable TV, satellite TV, IPTV, catch up TV. In the UK you've got services like Freetime and YouView for going back in time inside your Freeview or Freesat EPG.

All demand a different approach to an EPG interface, and most TV markets in Apple's target regions are evenly divided across this wide-ranging spectrum of options.

An Apple TV would have to negotiate this smorgasbord of differentials and come out with a clean interface and magic experience to match that of iOS. I'm not sure it's possible.

And what size screens would Apple make? One size fits all works with TVs even less than it does with smartwatches - and again, clearly Apple has shown with its Watch that it's wise enough to recognise that.

Equally, when you know you have to shift a lot of products in order to get your money back, locking a TV down to work exclusively with iCloud, iTunes and iOS devices as per Apple's recent preference, would be suicidal.

Diversity is your enemy

The world of television manufacture is simply too diverse, too messy and too unprofitable for a company like Apple to risk getting involved with.

I think Apple is savvy enough to know this - it would take investment on an absolutely epic scale to get a project like that off the ground, and for something that could never possibly make any money.

You could argue that Apple might subsidise the hardware in order to become the gatekeeper for TV and movie streaming and make money that way - but that doesn't wash, either. Apple has already missed the boat on that one.

All this, combined with the fact that the irreversible trend in the TV world is for prices to fall rather than rise, and you've got a tree that's simply not going to bear fruit to a full-blown Apple iTV. But that's ok, there's loads of brilliant TVs out there that you can buy.

James Rivington

James was part of the TechRadar editorial team for eight years up until 2015 and now works in a senior position for TR's parent company Future. An experienced Content Director with a demonstrated history of working in the media production industry. Skilled in Search Engine Optimization (SEO), E-commerce Optimization, Journalism, Digital Marketing, and Social Media. James can do it all.