Here we go again with the rumors of an Apple television, aka "iTV." For several years, financial analysts (particularly Piper Jafray's Gene Munster, for whom the iTV has become an unintentional joke) and tech bloggers have been telling us it's right around the corner. Apple CEO Tim Cook's comments last spring that Apple had new product categories to debut in 2014 led to more speculation that the fabled iTV would be announced in time for the 2013 Christmas holidays or right after at one the various consumer electronics shows in January. Now, the rumorists tell us, the iTV is delayed until 2015 because Apple can't get content deals with Hollywood for it.
All this rumormongering tends to leave out a key point: Why would Apple do an iTV? There are plenty of so-called smart TVs on the market, none doing well. Streaming content to your TV from the Internet is a sensible feature, but you can easily add that capability to your current TV for $100 using an Apple TV, Roku, or other such device, or get a streaming-capable Blu-ray player. You don't need to spend thousands on a new TV.
Why an iTV is hard to pull off
There are two basic problems with the notion of an iTV:
First, what exactly would an iTV do that a streaming-connected TV doesn't? Whatever it is needs to be hugely compelling and game-changing to justify such an expensive purchase. Paying $100 for an Apple TV is a cheap bet; paying $3,000 or more for an iTV is not. Some analysts suggest that Apple could do a 4K iTV as a limited high-end product to stoke the buzz and lay the groundwork for eventual TV domination, but that first part is not Apple's style.
Second, TVs have long lives in people's homes, but digital technologies change much more frequently. Incompatibilities would quickly arise in an iTV. Case in point: Samsung's 2012 model of the Smart TV can't support all the new features in the 2013 model. Even if you buy Samsung's separate $300 Evolution Kit controller box for a compatible 2012 Smart TV model, you still won't get all those new features. The same will no doubt be true for the 2013 and later models: Even though they have the Evolution Kit built in, they'll likely not be able to keep up with new features. That's unsupportable.
It's not just Samsung, of course: The third-gen Apple TV supports iOS 7's low-power Bluetooth "bumping" for easy setup and remote control, whereas older models do not because their hardware uses earlier Bluetooth chips. The difference between Apple TV and Samsung's Smart TV is that the Apple TV is only a $100 purchase versus $2,500 for the 55-inch Samsung. The penalty to keep current is low.
Is Apple TV the stealth version of the iTV?
Former Apple CEO Steve Jobs told his biographer Walter Isaacson that he had finally cracked the TV opportunity. But he didn't give a hint as to how. If Apple did indeed figure out how to do something as revolutionary for the TV as the iPad was to PCs and the iPhone to cellphones, only Apple knows. My imagination fails me.
Meanwhile, Apple's self-proclaimed experiment, the Apple TV, chugs along, providing a big leap in TV functionality. I can't help but believe the Apple TV is that "Eureka!" product, in beta form. Although many streaming boxes are available, they're all about downloading media services such as Hulu and Netflix from the Web, which is nice enough, but doesn't go that far. The only innovation lately there is Google's Chromecast, which reduces the size and price of these devices into a $35 dongle.