If there’s one major player always notable in its absence at the annual Las Vegas CES tech showcase, it’s Apple.
Whether undermining its rivals with billboards, or ignoring the show altogether in favour of its own snazzy events, Apple’s regular decision to sit outside of the tech circus has at best seemed a savvy way of keeping its own product launches free of competitor distraction, and at worst a cynical move to deny the tech extravaganza a full house of top-tier exhibitors.
But CES 2019 has been different. Sure, Apple, as per usual, isn’t at Las Vegas. But its presence is being felt thanks to key partnerships in the home entertainment space.
Whether you’re buying a Sony TV, an LG set, a Vizio display or a Samsung screen in the coming months, you’ll be picking up a device that’s compatible with Apple’s AirPlay 2 standard, the company’s way of streaming its content from its mobile devices onto your TV.
In the case of Samsung, it’s adding its own iTunes app to its smart TV platform, meaning you won’t even need to own an Apple device in order to get its content.
This is a rare move from Apple, which is notorious for its ‘walled garden’ approach to its services. In the past, you either buy in wholesale to the Apple lifestyle, or you miss out.
Here's a peek at our picks from CES 2019:
As such Apple has ploughed away with its Apple TV set top boxes for many years with only modest success, keeping many of its potential customers from buying into its digital content unless they pop that box under their screens.
But there’s a relaxing of that stance here, and it stretches into the next point: AirPlay 2 in these TVs is going to be partnered with HomeKit, Apple’s smart home control system.
A trojan horse
In other words, Apple is - by stealth - making a play to not only steal viewing time from competing content services, but giving a huge chunk of the TV viewing community entry to its vision of the connected home, without ever having to walk into an Apple Store.
It’s representative of the fact that the times are changing. While iPhone sales continue to be objectively impressive, there’s the sense that the smartphone bubble it’s lorded over for the past decade is, if not about to burst, then certainly shrinking, as Chinese manufacturers like Huawei increasingly chip away at its business.
But on the digital sales side, be that through App Store transactions or movie content, business is booming – and these new partnerships will allow the Cupertino company to capitalise on the digital-first content market that we now live in.
That’s before considering the long-gestating Apple TV service – not content with provide companies like Netflix lucrative access to its devices, Apple wants a chunk of the TV content and distribution pie itself.
It’s a now got its trojan horse to get as many households, and pairs of eyes, in front of that as possible, without having to maintain a TV-focussed hardware division at all if it so chooses.
With the launch of the Disney+ streaming service just months away, Apple has sured up its position to meet the threat of the mouse-house head on.
As for HomeKit, its falling significantly behind the popularity of Google Assistant for the home and Amazon’s Alexa.
The HomePod proved a great hi-fi product, but not a great smart device, and that’s largely down to the continued failings of Siri as a voice assistant.
While Apple takes the time to improve both those aspects of its product offering, these TVs will have it primed to strike and slowly improve its wares in front of a live, installed and captive audience.
CES still misses Apple. It’s a lost piece short of a full jigsaw puzzle without the company at the show. But Apple has still managed to pull off what the thousands of other exhibitors at the show can only dream of – getting its money-making products into customers’ homes in as seamless and cost-effective a way as possible.
- Check out all of TechRadar's CES 2019 coverage. We're live in Las Vegas to bring you all the breaking tech news and launches, plus hands-on reviews of everything from 8K TVs and foldable displays to new phones, laptops and smart home gadgets.