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Apple HDTV vs. Apple TV HD

Everyone's favorite and always accurate source, "analysts," have been jumping up and down over the past few days saying, "You guys! You guys! Seriously! Apple's making an HDTV! I'm serious, you guys, it's coming out later this year!"

This is another one of those Rumors that Just Won't Die, right alongside such perennial zombie products as an Apple-branded phone and an Apple-branded tablet -- wait, those products actually exist? Hmm. Well, does that mean the analysts are on to something? Or are they just on something?

Speculation has run wild over this whole Apple HDTV issue, with half the interested parties saying there's absolutely no way Apple will make its own HDTV, ever, and here's the charts and data to prove it, so there. The other half has instead wondered what exactly an HDTV from Apple might be like, and as usual, the feature wishlists exploded into Star Trek fanfiction territory by the end of the afternoon. Starry-eyed wishers have started throwing out phrases like, "Apple will re-define the TV," and "Apple will free us from the tyranny of the cable box" -- all without any proof of the product's existence, or any realistic notions of its specs, features, price, distribution channel, ad infinitum.

Will Apple make an HDTV? At this point I'd say the safe bet is no, but keep in mind that Apple's not exactly a company that's built on safe bets. Lots of people thought the Macintosh would fail in 1984. Instead, it re-invented how the general public interacted with computers. In 2001, Apple introduced the iPod, a product that Slashdot famously dismissed as "lame," and changed how people interact with music. The iPhone and iPad are still sending shock waves through their respective industries. Apple does have a history of stepping into established spaces with existing products and turning the whole thing on its head, but the question is, what can you do to a TV to make it more than a TV?

Google has already made its effort at supercharging the TV experience with Google TV, and the results have been less than stellar. The challenges are in usability and, more important to Google and its hardware partners Sony and Logitech, from a sales perspective. The hurdle that Apple (or any other manufacturer) has to clear is people have become used to thinking of their TVs as nothing more than the shiny box that shows pictures piped in from another box somewhere else.

My own living room is a good example of this. I've got a PS3, Wii, and a VGA cable I can hook into one of my Macs if I want to watch something via iTunes or EyeTV. My TV doesn't have a tuner, isn't connected to the internet, and doesn't even play sound through its built-in speakers -- all the audio is piped through my surround sound system. My TV is basically nothing more than a glorified monitor, and without all the various boxes plugged into it, it would be as useless as a computer display without a computer hooked into it.

A lot of the speculation surrounding an Apple-branded HDTV suggests Apple would upend this "TV plus boxes" mentality and bake a lot of the media functionality right into the TV itself. Instead of a dumb rectangle that merely pumps out whatever signals are fed into it from infinitely smarter boxes elsewhere, this hypothetical Apple HDTV would be connected to the internet, and more lucratively for Apple, to the iTunes Store. This is the part that has a lot of wishful thinkers excited about "freeing us from the tyranny of the cable companies," because they'd have access to media right through their TV, without having to pay a monthly bill.

If all of this is sounding familiar to you by now, congratulations, you've been paying attention to the tech sector for the past several years. The Apple HDTV product that people are imagining already (sort of) exists, and it's called Apple TV. Except instead of a big LCD TV that requires huge amounts of warehouse space, massive shipping costs, and razor-thin hardware margins because of high production costs, the Apple TV is a box that fits in the palm of your hand, can be stacked 100 units high in the warehouse with room to spare, and probably costs Apple less than US$50 to make.

I think all these analysts that are getting excited about an Apple HDTV simply have their alphabet soup mixed up, and as usual, they need to moderate their expectations. Instead of an Apple HDTV, this fall we should be expecting an Apple TV HD. It's nothing as outlandishly sexy as an Apple-branded LCD monitor with LED backlighting, 600 Hz motion-flow, 3D, 15 gazillion HDMI ports, wireless A/V streaming, built-in internet functionality, and a free pony. Instead, the Apple TV HD is just the same unassuming oversized hockey puck as the current Apple TV, with one exception. Driven by the A5 processor that powers the iPad 2, the Apple TV HD is capable of streaming full 1080p video content instead of being limited to 720p like the A4-powered product now on shelves. It's connected to the iTunes Store just like the current model, but it's still another box that hooks into your poor, dumb HDTV just like all the other boxes.

An Apple TV HD may not be as awe-inspiring as the prospect of an Apple HDTV, but it's a much more realistic prospect. Look at it this way: other than the Mac Pro and 27" iMac, Apple doesn't do big products like an HDTV; most of its products are small enough to shove into a suitcase, backpack, or pants pocket. Unlike a $2000 Apple HDTV, a $99 Apple TV HD is also something I'd buy. Up until this point I haven't been too excited about the Apple TV, but once it's able to wirelessly stream full 1080p HD, I'll be first in line to buy one.

This may be my poverty talking for me, but I'm having a hard time imagining anybody running to their nearest Apple Store and replacing their existing HDTV sets with whatever "magical" piece of $2000 kit Apple comes out with. My colleague Megan Lavey has pointed out that Apple's already made one attempt at a "high-end" A/V product: the iPod Hi-Fi, a product so "tremendously successful" that it vanished from Apple's shelves (and collective memory) about a year after its introduction. She thinks an Apple HDTV would probably be a repeat of that failure, and I can't say I disagree with her.

We've become used to the TV becoming the dumb center of our entertainment systems, little more than a glorified projector. If anyone can do something to change that perception it's Apple, but the one thing the analysts haven't told us yet is why Apple would even want to. Apple likes to make products that satisfy and even delight its customers, but the company also likes to make money -- and an Apple HDTV might be too long of a bet for Apple to back.

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