Earlier this month, Apple Inc. poached the chief of Amazonâ€™s Fire TV unit to run its television operations. Timothy D. Twerdhal brings hardware and content experience to his new gig, and his hiring suggests a renewed focus on the Apple TV set-top box.
Twerdhalâ€™s arrival comes as the company tests a new, fifth-generation Apple TV that it may release as soon as this year. Internally codenamed â€œJ105,â€ the new box will be capable of streaming ultra-high-definition 4K and more vivid colors, according to people familiar with the plans.
The features will probably boost Apple TV sales as consumers increasingly upgrade to 4K television sets, but those enhancements alone probably arenâ€™t enough to turn the gadget into a groundbreaking, iPhone-caliber product. Time and again, the people say, Apple engineers have been forced to compromise on Appleâ€™s vision of revolutionizing the living room.
Early on, the Apple TV was going to replace the clunky set-top boxes from the cable companies and stream live television. It never happened. The team debated bundling a gaming controller with the current model to better compete with Microsoft Corp.â€™s Xbox and Sony Corp.â€™s PlayStation. That didnâ€™t happen either. Originally, viewers were going to be able to shout commands from the couch to the Apple TV. Instead they must talk to the remote control.
Apple has essentially settled for turning the television set into a giant iPhone: a cluster of apps with a store. â€œThatâ€™s not what I signed up for,â€ says one of the people, who requested anonymity to talk freely about internal company matters. â€œI signed up for revolutionary. We got evolutionary.â€ Gene Munster, who covered Apple for more than a decade as a Piper Jaffray analyst and now runs Loup Ventures, echoes the criticism. â€œApple TV begs the question: Why does Apple do hobbies?â€ he says. â€œEither do it right or donâ€™t do it at all.â€
Apple doesnâ€™t disclose how many Apple TVs it sells, but Chief Financial Officer Luca Maestri acknowledged in a recent interview that sales decreased year-over-year from the 2015 holiday season to this past 2016 holiday period. The research firm eMarketer says the fourth-generation Apple TV has steadily lost market share since its release in the fall of 2015; in January just 11.9 percent of connected television customers were using it, the research firm says, down from 12.5 percent in September. In part, the slide reflects competition from Amazon and Roku, whose boxes do the same and more for less money.
While the Apple TV itself isnâ€™t critical to Appleâ€™s bottom line, itâ€™s central to the companyâ€™s services business because increasingly the living room is where consumers buy, rent and consume media. Services represented almost $25 billion in revenue for Apple in the last fiscal year, making it the companyâ€™s second biggest category after the iPhone. Apple declined to comment or make Twerdhal available for an interview.
The Apple TVâ€™s history is study in gradualism. Previewed by Steve Jobs in 2006, the first box was designed simply to stream iTunes video from a Mac to a TV set. The next version, launched in the fall of 2010, let users stream content from the internet. The latest box was announced in September 2015, a few months later than originally scheduled. Widely considered an improvement by consumers and product reviewers, the Apple TV features the App Store, voice control and a glass remote that enables motion-controlled gaming, which for example lets players use the remote like a steering wheel for a car-racing title.
But the latest Apple TV sells for $149, more than twice as much as its predecessor, $60 more than Amazonâ€™s Fire TV and $20 more than the priciest Roku. Whatâ€™s more, little about the viewing experience has changed. Apple TV users still have to buy an individual episode via the iTunes Store, pay extra for services like Hulu, or download an app tied to a particular channel and log in with an existing cable subscription.
The current model was originally supposed to replace the cable box altogether. Early prototypes had connectors for a coaxial port, which sends the live cable TV signal to televisions. Under this plan, Apple was to control the interface, collect fees from viewers and then share most of the revenue with the cable and media companies.
A new TV app was to be the main interface for accessing live shows and sports. But when the app was finally launched in December, it merely let viewers access their iTunes video library and the iTunes Store, functions that already existed on the Apple TV. The key new element is a â€œWatch Nowâ€ panel, a Netflix-style repository of favorite movies or shows and recommendations for new ones.