Apple TV: Why it's hard to tune into Tim Cook's signals

With Apple focused firmly on mobility, starting to sell a large TV doesn't seem to add up. Yet Apple CEO Tim Cook has alluded to just such a possibility.

Despite the mixed signals, Apple CEO Tim Cook could still have something programmed for television. Photo: Apple

A lot has changed at Apple since Tim Cook took the reins. He's adopted measures to improve working conditions at Apple's suppliers. He's introduced corporate charity schemes. He's even talking about share dividends, for goodness sake.

He's also rolled out a new way of announcing new products after the company briefed a small number of selected journalists about the summer launch of a new version of Mac OS X.

But one thing he hasn't done is decide that the best way to announce major new products is to let Apple's suppliers unveil them for him in ad hoc press conferences.

Earlier in May at a press conference, Hon Hai chairman Terry Gou - of which Apple manufacturer Foxconn is a subsidiary - reportedly revealed that the company was preparing to manufacture the iTV, Apple's new television set. You'd have thought Cook would have wanted to announce that one himself.

Foxconn have since issued a statement denying that its chairman had made such a statement - the source was one report in the China Daily.

The Foxconn statement said: "At no time did [Gou] confirm that Foxconn was in development or manufacturing stages for any product for any of its customers. Any reports that Foxconn confirmed that it is preparing to produce a specific product for any customer are not accurate."

Meanwhile, the web was all aflutter with talk of Apple buying TV maker Loewe for the princely sum of $112m - about the same cost as one of the German manufacturer's high-end TVs. Small change to a company with a $100bn-plus war chest. Alternatively, speculation suggested Apple would turn to Foxconn again, which has made a $1.6bn investment in Sharp's TV display division.

According to reports, the iTV's screen measures anywhere between 32 inches and 55 inches, with the sleek curves of an Apple iMac and an integrated Apple TV media-streaming device. It works with iCloud and naturally has a Siri interface because everyone has apparently bought into an unreliable, voice-controlled future.

Apple is about the ecosystem

There's no doubt Apple could develop the hardware and software but these days Apple is more that these two things. It's also about the ecosystem. The thought of the content deals required make the head spin, especially if networks consider the new device a risk to existing revenue streams.

The bottom line is that Apple would make a fine TV and probably a lot of money. It already has a set-top box and has done for the best part of five years.

The move makes sense, too. The company has a vast content ecosystem behind it and the whole concept seems logical. But the thing that struck me more about the recent rash of so-called iTV news is this: what happens if the rumours just aren't true this time? What if the iTV is a ghost of a machine?

More often than not, when the rumour mill spins itself into a frenzy it's based on speculation, insider reports, analysts picking through supplier updates and the sheer will of the Apple-obsessed part of the internet.

Perversely, the source of the rumour is the former CEO himself and not some anonymous insider or well-connected analyst with a knack for supply-chain divination.

Steve Jobs on Apple TV

Steve Jobs told his biographer Walter Isaacson: "I'd like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use... It would be seamlessly synced with all your devices and with iCloud. It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it."

There's never an official confirmation to launch a rumour and here lies the real curiosity, because as any journalist who has ever spoken to Apple PR can tell you: "Apple does not comment on future products". Ever.

There are many ways of looking at this. Jobs may have toyed with an abandoned the idea and felt no need to be cagey about possible Apple products with his biographer. Or, knowing the end was near he could imbue the future major product with his seal of approval given the widespread belief that Apple's laser-like focus on design would be lost without him.

Cook has been more open about products than Jobs. At a recent Goldman Sachs conference he said the company didn't do "hobbies" as a rule but thought differently about Apple TV, thinking there might be "something there".

He said: "And that if we kept following our intuition and kept pulling the string, then we might find something that was larger."

Apple will only enter a new market if it thinks it can make a real difference to it, as well as a heap of money. I wrote some months ago that Apple could make a real difference in television. But now things look less clear cut.

Viability of an Apple television

In recent months, some analysts have been expressing doubts about the viability of the rumoured product, citing doubts on product specifications and poor use of retail space.

At a time when Apple is so focused on mobility and having a complete product range that could easily fit on a table, creating a large TV simply jars.

Furthermore, the company is known for its focus on a narrow product profile. And is it likely so soon after the iPad, which is still building impressive sales momentum? Could its marketing be spread too thin?

Cook is talking about it in a way that Jobs never would have but as he's already established, he's remaking the company in his own way. He's not afraid to step away from the long shadow of the former CEO and co-founder.

Perhaps Jobs really did give it his future blessing and perhaps we are looking at a time when, unthinkably, Apple will begin to comment on future products. At the moment, the pace of change and the thinking are difficult to follow and defy easy predictions.