Television distribution is easily the most convoluted of all entertainment industries. Studios, carriers and distributors constantly bicker over cost structures, technical standards and access to content as they fight to protect their individual business models.
Apple may still be collecting accolades a decade after getting the once-warring music studios to agree to a series of online distribution deals that made the first version of the iTunes Store even possible, but that achievement would pale next to a similar agreement among even more deeply entrenched cable and satellite distributors, carriers and other television industry stakeholders.
Technical distribution standards. Choosing which audio standards to support, such as MP3 or AAC, for example, is a relatively easy process compared to the rabbit’s warren of technologies required to deliver televised content to an end-user’s screen. In an industry where warring sides spend decades moving toward common standards – the just-completed switch from analog to digital broadcasting should serve as fair warning to the complexity of even the most seemingly straightforward transition – it takes a whole lot of arrogance for one company, even one as powerful as Apple, to think it can corral everyone into agreement.
Consumer standards. Technological barriers exist in the living room, too, leaving huge question marks around how content downloaded or streamed from the Internet can be ideally fed to a conventional television and controlled from the couch. Various solutions, like Boxee, Slingbox, and Apple TV aim to simplify the process, but no one standard has emerged. Instead, vendor after vendor tosses an endless stream of new offerings at the wall in the hope that some of them stick.
As tepidly received Google TV and Smart TV solutions can attest, there’s still too much blood in the water to know which of these, if any, will emerge intact. Ultimately, Apple enters a TV market much more saturated with noise than the music market was a decade ago.
Admittedly, much of that noise is being generated by products and, in some cases, entire companies without enough critical mass to survive the transition. Apple faces the prospect of climbing a higher mountain to get more – and more entrenched – players on-side, then reining in a witches brew of competing back-end and front-end standards to create the kind of elegant solution that’s made its existing i-based brands leaders in their respective markets.
As the rumour mills point toward 32- and 37-inch all-in-one television sets, set top boxes, iPhone-based remotes and a whole host of other fantastic-sounding solutions, one thing remains clear: Apple can no longer afford to relegate this effort to “hobby” status, and it can’t afford to fail. It’s as close to a bet-the-future move as Apple has ever faced, and serves as new CEO Tim Cook‘s first true test.