Is Apple about to take over your cable TV box?
The Mac maker's strategy might be changing with plans for a set-top device to deliver live programming from cable companies -- which the current Apple TV doesn't do.
By Chris Ciaccia
Just when you thought it was safe to say news about Apple's (AAPL) television strategy was slow, think again. This time, it looks like Apple might be changing the channel in its approach.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Apple is in talks with U.S. cable operators about building an Apple set-top box for live programming.
Apple has been trying its damnedest to get into the living room, and many observers thought an actual television set would be at the heart of its strategy, particularly given former CEO Steve Jobs' comments about creating one. "It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine," Jobs told biographer Walter Isaacson. "I finally cracked it."
Apple already has a set-top box, Apple TV, but the device hasn't really taken off. It provides content from places like Netflix (NFLX), Hulu Plus, YouTube and others, but it doesn't offer live channels from the cable companies. Perhaps that's why CEO Tim Cook thinks Apple can do more in this space.
In the past, Cook has said, "Apple doesn't do hobbies as a general rule," when speaking about Apple's existing set-top box. He followed that up by saying that the company "always thought there was something there, and that if we kept following our intuition and kept pulling that string, we might find something larger." Apple sold 1.3 million Apple TVs in its most recent quarter.
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It's unclear at this point whether Apple is abandoning its television set plans or whether this will be an add-on to the existing Apple TV. There's also the potential for the technology to be put into an actual television, the Journal said, citing two people briefed on the matter.
This may also signal a change in strategy, Atlantic Equities analyst Chris Watts said in a research note. "What is significant is that AAPL appears to have decided to try and work within the PayTV ecosystem than outside it," Watts wrote. "While several indicators were already pointing in this direction (nine unsuccessful months talking to content providers, the complexity associated with replicating content deals on a global basis, and the decision by peers such as Microsoft (MSFT) to follow similar routes), this makes a direct-to-consumer OTT solution from Apple look even less likely in the near term." He rates Apple "overweight" with a $760 price target. (Microsoft owns and publishes Top Stocks, an MSN Money site.)
OTT, or over the top, refers to services that are not offered via a traditional network operator.
Apple's working with the cable companies is nothing new. Rumors have flown around that Apple was working with Rogers Communications (RGC) and BCE (BCE) in Canada. If Apple is indeed working with companies such as Verizon (VZ), AT&T (T) and Time Warner Cable (TWC), then this may signal a shift in strategy by allowing the cable and media companies to own the content, the way it does with iTunes.
Jobs and Apple had reportedly discussed building a set-top box for the cable companies more than two years ago, but Jobs ultimately decided against the deal because the cable companies operated in regions and didn't have national scale as the major wireless carriers do.
If Apple is indeed changing its television strategy from the oft-rumored television set to a more sophisticated set-top box with a television, then this appears to be a shift in Apple's relationship with content owners.
Just when you thought it was safe to keep the channel on mute, Apple might be turning up the volume.
Apple could not be reached for comment.
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Either way, cable is dead to me as long as commercials remain on channels I paid for. That is to say forever.
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