Two weeks to go before Apple stages its biggest product event of the year, and Tim Cook is still chasing his white whale, Apple TV.
Apple TV is by no means a failure, with an estimated 5 percent of the market for streaming-TV boxes in 2017. But it lags market leader Roku, with 18 percent, as well as Amazon Fire TV and Google Chromecast.
Moreover, whatever Tim Cook achieves in digital TV will always be overshadowed by Steve Jobs’ ability to leverage iTunes to corral music labels into a listener-friendly business model for legally downloading digital tracks.
On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Apple is preparing to update its streaming-media devices but is still haggling with Hollywood studios over how much to charge for 4K video, a high-definition technology that could help Apple regain eroding market share.
Apple wants to charge $20 for 4K movies, while studios want to charge $5 or $10 more, the Journal said. The sourcing of the story is unclear, but it’s to the studios’ advantage to pressure Apple for higher prices as the date of its next event approaches.
A separate report on Recode cited unnamed sources who suggested Apple’s plans to introduce the Amazon Prime Video app into its Apple TV App Store might not be ready, despite Cook’s announcement of the partnership during June’s developer conference.
In some ways, Apple’s negotiations with music labels a decade and a half ago occurred against a dramatically different media landscape than it’s facing with the Hollywood studios today. Back then, music labels were facing peer-to-peer file sharing programs like Napster. Labels needed a way to engage with disaffected consumers to sell digital music to them. Jobs saw iTunes as a chance to solve that problem while spurring demand for iPods.
Today, movie and TV studios aren’t facing any such threat. Instead, there are plenty of deep-pocketed media giants offering access to streaming video — not just Amazon, but Netflix, Hulu, Disney, and the cable giants moving to on-demand digital video. Apple introduced the TV App Store as a way to let consumers interact with all of them, betting that a superior technology would sell more Apple TVs.
The promise of Apple TV has always exceeded what can be found inside Apple Stores. Shortly before Jobs passed away, he told his biographer that he had “finally cracked” how to make a good TV. Whether Jobs was mistaken or the idea never made it into an executed product or someone else also cracked whatever idea Jobs had, we don’t know.
Instead, Apple TV is one of several product categories that sits alongside the iPhone, which accounts for two-thirds of Apple’s revenue. While expectations are higher surrounding updates like the iPhone 8 and new products like the HomePod, Apple’s September event was a chance to deliver a streaming TV product that could finally live up to the potential that Apple TV has always hinted at.
It could also be that Cook has something up his sleeve beyond 4K to make the Apple TV more alluring to consumers. Otherwise — and with a per-movie download fee as high as $30 — the Apple TV could remain the potentially must-have product that got away from Tim Cook.