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Why an Apple HDTV is a huge risk

An Apple television has been rumored for some time, and as Jobs' biography has revealed, it is one of his dying wishes. But is it a good idea?

With the release of Steve Jobs' biography this week, it seems that the man's final desire was to build an Apple television.

His biographer, Walter Isaacson, wrote that Jobs had the idea of a simple interface cracked, but then told CNET that the product was not "close at all" and "very theoretical." This hasn't stopped analysts from leaping over each other to pinpoint the TV's launch date (late 2012? early 2013?) in some kind of "guess the number of jelly beans" competition, especially after the news that the creator of iTunes was heading up a team to produce it. Even the New York Times has chimed in today saying that it really is coming, honest.

But is a full-fledged Apple HDTV a good idea? There have been several instances in the past few years of companies pulling out of the TV market--mostly Japanese manufacturers like Pioneer and Hitachi pushed by the cheaper LCD competition coming from the Asian mainland.

Meanwhile, Apple's had a lot of ideas, and while most of them have gone on to inform and inspire a whole slew of products, not all of them were well received at the time of launch, or successful afterward. People, including myself, scoffed at the idea of the iPad: "It's a big iPod Touch with no clear usage model," we said. I still believe that's true, yet the iPad has sold like cupcakes (hotcakes are so 2008). And it looks like its protege, the Kindle Fire, might be just as red-hot.

Apple is a company that has always sought to innovate, but for every iPod and iPhone there are also the forgotten children like the Newtons and Apple iPod Hi-Fis. Even the Apple TV set-top box has had a sluggish reception, and despite Jobs' enthusiasm at its launch, it's now seen by many as a niche product.

I think an Apple HDTV would also likely be a niche product, and while niche hi-fi thrives, niche TV products don't. Sure, there are occasional Bang & Olufsen and Loewe TVs, but Apple is much more high-profile than that. If the Apple HDTV does indeed exist, it would likely be a luxury product along the lines of Sharp's new Elite TV, the ill-fated Pioneer Kuro, or the Samsung C9000 ultrathin LED TV.

While the verdict is still out on the Sharp Elite, its price relegates it to the estates of the 1 percent. Meanwhile, Pioneer exited the TV market spectacularly, despite an overwhelmingly positive reception, and the Samsung C9000 simply disappeared; there's no correspondingly premium-priced UND9000 in Samsung's 2011 U.S. lineup.

The last Pioneer Kuro was produced in 2009.

The Kuro lesson
The pitfalls of the Pioneer Kuro case should be a warning of "what not to do" to the Cupertino, Calif., legions. Here was a company that built an amazing reputation on a premium product but found it lost more money trying to market and develop it than it could ever recoup in sales. According to one Pioneer representative, the plasma division was only responsible for 14 percent of the worldwide turnover, yet was the main reason the company hadn't turned a profit in five years. Pioneer jettisoned the plasma business and turned to its more profitable audio and in-car products instead.

Pioneer had many "successful" plasma products in that time, but still the most fondly remembered and highly regarded is the Kuro. Indeed, CNET still uses the Pro-111FD as the benchmark against which other TVs are judged. Yet after debuting in 2007, Pioneer's premium TV bounced from in-house production across to Panasonic in 2008, and then Pioneer announced it was getting out of the plasma business in 2009.

Apple has a solid reputation when it comes to image quality: the Mac is the "go-to" device for photographers and designers across the land, and its LED cinema display promises a "viewing experience unlike any other." Any notion that an Apple HDTV wouldn't try to compete against the big guns in terms of image quality should be quickly dispelled. Sony's "Google TV" is a budget screen with a "work in progress" operating system, and I can't imagine Apple releasing something like that.

TV as toaster oven
Unfortunately, though, a TV is now increasingly seen as a commodity item like a fridge or a minivan. Mainstream consumers generally want the biggest they can get for the cheapest price. Most Apple products do not fit well into this view; they are well-built, premium items and priced accordingly.

Though Jobs said bringing the simplicity of an iPod to TV was always his vision, an Apple HDTV just seems like the wrong product for these times. Analysts predict we will soon see TVs with integrated cameras allowing Skype conferencing in the home as well as Kinect-based voice and gesture control. Jobs said the TV would have a simple user interface. What is more simple than talking or even waving? Sure, an Apple TV could integrate the Siri voice control from the latest iPhone, and while people are wary of talking to their electronic devices in public, maybe they'd be more comfortable in the privacy of their own lounge rooms.

To succeed, the Apple HDTV needs to do something we don't already anticipate it will do, and do it simply. It needs to be one of those ideas that makes you go, "Of course!"

What would it look like, though? A big iMac? Possibly somewhere between that and the aforementioned ultrathin Samsung 9000 and a nice bright Apple logo in the middle. But by the time this thing comes out, that sort of design will be old hat. Apple would really need to flex its design biceps to catch people's attention, because--at least to judge by Samsung's latest efforts--TV bezels themselves will be nonexistent. We envision Apple would partner with either Samsung or Sharp, two of the only LCD manufacturers left, to produce this mythical device.

Will Apple produce a TV? Maybe. Would it be a popular product? Popular in that everyone will talk about it perhaps, but there's no way it could be a volume product. A big, expensive product with great ideas but that not many people would buy? You've got to wonder why Apple would bother, other than to act as a marketing exercise or as an homage to Steve Jobs. In this way it would become Jobs' own Epcot Center.