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Why the Apple TV was always a pipe dream

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Sorry, you're not going to get a laser TV

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Apple will actually be fighting the cable monopolies instead of co-opting them. Last night, The Wall Street Journal dropped the news that Apple gave up on plans to make a 4K TV a year ago. To the casual observer, the news feels like a bombshell, but to people watching Apple rumors for the past five-plus years, it just felt inevitable. Steve Jobs may have famously said he "cracked" TV, but the reality is that knowing what the right solution is and actually implementing it are two vastly different things. So what actually happened to Apple’s long-awaited TV?

Read next: The Apple TV review.

Part of the problem with understanding the TV business is that we use shortcuts to talk about it. TV is the shows you watch. TV is the cabal of cable networks standing between you and the shows you want to watch. TV is the remote. TV is the software. TV is the tooth-and-nail fight to be the default thing that appears when you press the power button. TV is the cable box. TV is the way that the shows get to your TV. TV is the way that you pay for those shows. TV is who you pay to get those shows. And last of all, TV is the panel you stare at nightly. When we talk about TV, we tend to talk about all of those things all mixed up together like some kind of demonic Venn diagram whose center is a black triskaidecagon of suffering.

TV is a demonic Venn diagram

So when you hear that everybody wants the TV business to be disrupted, you need to figure out which of those pieces are part of that disruption. So let’s try to separate just one piece out: the hardware.

It’s the focus of Daisuke Wakabayashi’s WSJ’s story, and in theory it should be the simplest piece of this massive puzzle. The truth is that the business of making panels has actually already been disrupted. Prices have come down at a rapid clip even as resolutions and picture quality have improved greatly on LCDs (let’s leave plasma-based panels to the side for this discussion, just like the market has). Making TVs is quickly becoming a commodity game, no matter what the giant manufacturers at the Consumer Electronics Show tell you year after year.

So how was Apple trying to change things? According to the WSJ, it chased 4K panels long before they became available — or even feasible — on the consumer market. It considered embedding cameras for FaceTime calls that could track your position in the room. It even considered wild, transparent panels that used laser beams to project images.

But the tech was never enough to differentiate Apple’s hardware. In fact, every single one of those technologies would have been a bad decision. Apple was well ahead of the curve on 4K technologies — so much so that cost and content have been major problems until very recently. Now that those problems are on their way to being solved, 4K panels are quickly becoming a commodity. The laser-based display sounds whiz-bang, but apparently it couldn’t produce enough picture quality. And last but not least, TVs equipped with cameras are more than a little creepy.

Apple couldn’t get out ahead of the commodity TV market

Assuming Wakabayashi is right (and I have no reason to believe otherwise), the cold fact appears to be that Apple couldn’t get out ahead of the commodity TV market. There just wasn’t a hardware differentiator that Apple could create that was good enough to radically change the fundamental commodity business of selling a big, nice-looking LCD panel.

But to actually disrupt an ecosystem, you need something more than just the most advanced hardware. TV is a muddled mess of bad software, the greedy and/or incumbents, and really good content. Apple’s solved similar problems before: both the iPod and the iPhone were devices that combined hardware, software, and aggressive corporate negotiations to carve out a space for a product that was genuinely consumer friendly.

But pulling off that same trick with TV is much harder, if only because the TV industry has seen Apple run this playbook before and isn’t much interested in letting Apple do it again. Back in February, Peter Kafka at Recode told us that Apple had shifted away from trying to get cable companies on board to talking directly to the programmers. And in March, the WSJ revealed that Apple had indeed been trying to work with Comcast, but talks broke down.

If they hadn’t, maybe coming out with hardware that wasn’t radically differentiated might have made sense for Apple. Sure, the panel wouldn’t have been much different, but the overall experience would have been. The iPhone and the iPod were ahead of their time in terms of hardware — but not by that much. It’s the whole package that matters, and the cable companies seem to have kept Apple from creating it.

It’s the whole package that matters

But presumably, Apple knew (and knows) exactly how it would do it. Here, once again, is Steve Jobs to biographer Walter Isaacson:

"I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use," he told me. "It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud." No longer would users have to fiddle with complex remotes for DVD players and cable channels. "It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it."

Since then, Tim Cook spent years talking about TV as an "area of intense interest" with little to show for it beyond marginal updates to the Apple TV set-top box. All that talk led to widespread expectations that Apple was working on an actual television set. And apparently, it was. But just because you’ve "cracked" TV and know what the ideal solution is, that doesn’t mean you can make it happen. Instead, Apple is rumored to be settling for a set-top box and over-the-top streaming services à la Netflix, Hulu, Sling, and HBO Now.

Apple will fight big cable companies instead of co-opting them

There are real reasons why Apple would want to make an integrated solution instead of another set-top box. Apple’s interface would have become "Input Zero," the default thing that appears when you hit the power button. As Input Zero, it would have had an inherent leg up on the cable box. With a set-top box, Apple is relegated to Input One. And at that point, Apple has to fight directly with the cable box to become Input One. And that turns out to be a surprisingly difficult fight.

But that’s the fight Apple is apparently choosing, whether it wanted to or not. And honestly: I’m glad. As a cable cutter, I prefer dumb TVs paired to a cheap and easily upgradable set-top box. If this plays out the way I hope it does, Apple will actually be fighting the cable monopolies instead of co-opting them. That sounds a lot more like the TV disruption everybody has been hoping for, including me.

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