With the last Apple TV refresh having occurred two years ago, the timing feels right for a new one.
Indeed, ahead of Apple's (AAPL - Get Report) Tuesday iPhone event, a couple of rumors have popped up indicating that a new Apple TV set-top will soon launch. One states that Apple's next set-top will (like last year's iPhone models) be powered by an A12 system-on-chip (SoC), while another states that it will support the HDMI 2.1 interface, which supports nearly three times as much bandwidth as HDMI 2.0 and also improves the playback of fast-moving content such as games.
The rumors are emerging after Apple used its March services event to unveil TV+, a streaming service that will be launching this fall and be available both on Apple TV and rival living room streaming platforms. Also shown off at the event: Apple TV Channels, a service for subscribing to third-party streaming services via Apple TV (echoes of Amazon.com's (AMZN - Get Report) Prime Video Channels) and Arcade, a game-subscription service that will work on iPhones, iPads and Apple TVs.
Separately, at its June WWDC conference, Apple disclosed that the next version of its tvOS operating system (tvOS 13) will support Xbox and PlayStation game controllers. It also features a revamped home screen meant to improve content discovery, and introduces a picture-in-picture mode.d
Between Arcade's pending launch and tvOS 13's support for Xbox/PlayStation controllers, Apple has a strong incentive to launch a new Apple TV that supports HDMI 2.1 and packs a more powerful SoC than the ones inside of its current set-tops. The Apple TV 4K, which starts at $179, contains an A10X Fusion SoC, while the Apple TV HD, which starts at $149, contains an A8 SoC.
Apple doesn't break out its Apple TV revenue -- the set-top's sales are included within the "Wearables, Home and Accessories" segment that also features a slew of other products. During Apple's July 30 earnings call, CFO Luca Maestri disclosed that Apple TV revenue rose at a double-digit annual rate during the company's June quarter, albeit without going into further detail. Tim Cook disclosed that U.S. monthly viewers for the set-top's TV app, which was refreshed in May, rose 40%.
Apple TV's share of the streaming player market is still believed to be well below that of Roku (ROKU - Get Report) and Amazon's. A survey done by research firm Parks Associates indicated that Apple TV accounted for 13% of the installed base of streaming players owned by U.S. households with broadband in Q1 2019; Roku devices and Amazon's Fire TV devices were estimated, respectively, to account for 39% and 30%. Last year, eMarketer forecast that 25.1 million Americans would use an Apple TV in 2018, 70.1 million would use Roku and 55.7 million would utilize Fire TV devices.
Business model differences have a lot to do with Roku and Amazon's lead. Whereas Apple (judging by its pricing) is looking to turn a profit on Apple TV sales, Roku and Amazon treat their streaming devices as loss leaders, with the goal of monetizing users via ads, subscriptions and other services. As a result, Roku and Amazon respectively sell 4K-capable streaming sticks for $50 and $40, and 1080p-capable sticks for even less.
In addition, unlike Apple, Roku and Amazon have both been willing to license their streaming device operating systems to smart TV makers. Roku estimates that it powered more than a third of the smart TVs sold in the U.S. during the first half of 2019.
While it's unlikely that Apple will license tvOS to third-party hardware makers, given its product philosophy, its services push does give the company some motivation to price Apple TV set-tops more aggressively. Between TV+, Arcade, Apple TV Channels, iTunes rentals and purchases and App Store transactions (including transactions for games working with Xbox/PlayStation controllers), Apple will have quite a few ways to make up for Apple TV discounts.
Whether or not Apple chooses to go this route, or perhaps do something like provide six months of free Apple TV+ with an Apple TV purchase, it's fair to say that the company's services efforts have increased the strategic importance of its set-top platform. Going forward, Apple TV will arguably be as much a services vehicle for Apple as it will be a hardware business.