Apple TV: The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Apple ( AAPL) may well have something like real magic up its sleeve regarding iTV. But I doubt it.

I think instead that the product and its support will be a mildly positive addition to the company's fleet of slick personal technology.

The stock will sink immediately as disappointed investors looking for surprising vision get angry and try to walk away. But they won't walk away. On the whole, the Apple story is still too compelling.

In the end, most investors will nod and voice approval, however muted, like Saturday night party goers at a Sunday morning church service. Like Republicans at President Obama's State of the Union speech.

But let's, for a moment, suppose I'm wrong about that. Let's say the magic appears. What kind of shape would that take?

Hypothetically -- only hypothetically, mind you -- if you wanted to make iTV not a simple new gadget but a completely disruptive suite of business strategies, this is what you could do:

1. Hardware: A TV device that builds on Apple's successful interfaces, is slim and in one piece (that is, any control box is built into the screen) with no DVD slot or other inputs, only Internet connectivity. The only way to put your content on the device or record content is through a dedicated Apple Web site portal or hookup to your computer.

2. Distribution Platform: The Web site lets anyone with content upload it to be sold and viewed by all the world. This would take the functionality of the best video sites, like YouTube, and make it a potentially profitable affair, in the same way iTunes captured much of the functionality of Napster-style sharing sites and turned it into a dependable revenue stream.

3. Content Pipeline: Deals to generate original content for that platform, only viewable on the Apple TV. The more the merrier.

4. High-Profile Exclusives: Among those deals should be exclusive contracts with everyone who has ever screened successful films at Sundance and the Sundance Channel itself, plus a handful of big directors who want to screen smaller projects or have agreed to produce a series or two, a couple of renegade cable-stuffers such as perhaps Discover and SyFy and a cartoon channel, in an agreement with Walt Disney ( DIS). Add into that agreements for the music videos already available through iTunes.

5. Pricing: Viewers would pay for each piece, with optional packages available. Prices would vary depending on the content, with some set standard for a movie-length, a one-hour show and a half-hour show.

With all that in place at the outset, Apple could compete with TV as know it. It could completely disrupt the home viewing space in five years, dominate it in 10.

Dream, Dream, Dream

As I said, all hypothetical, pure speculation, unburdened by any evidence whatsoever. But it is not my own invention.

In fact, it should sound to you like a familiar strategy. That's exactly what Apple did with the iPod.

All that vision, the groundwork, the ecosystem, was in place the day iPod rocked the crowd in a simple presentation in 2001. Everything that happened later was just sauce for the goose.

iTunes is already capable of functioning as a large-scale TV-on-demand broadcaster. The interface would have to be different to conform to the new device, but the infrastructure would be the same.

The professional relationships with content owners also already exist. Jobs was CEO at Pixar, after all, and Apple's cultural ties to the film industry are deep.

Still, negotiations for exclusive content would be a huge obstacle. When the iPod and iTunes came along music labels and artists were faced with a technological revolution that was decimating CD sales. iTunes was far from an easy sell, but the writing was on the wall for some kind of organized online music distribution.

By contrast, the film and TV studios are a lot less motivated and a lot more wary of giving up any control over their products. They've already developed strategies for dealing with the online threat, strategies that appear to be working quite well, thank you very much.

On the other hand, if Apple can prove it can enhance marketing and revenue, they're not going to say no.

There were some notable holdouts to iTunes, big brands with strong, exclusive control over their products: The Beatles and Frank Zappa were two. Both are on iTunes now, eventually persuaded by the dominance of the platform and careful, individualized negotiations.

The company, the platform, the artists and the audience are all better for it.

With some high-profile content ramping up audience expectations, Apple might be able to tout its history of such successes to pressure -- um, I mean persuade -- the studios to soften their opposition. They'll want to compete in the new arena.

I admit it's all very far-fetched. The idea that Apple could compete with cable or Hollywood or both -- it's ridiculous.

But iPod/iTunes was equally far-fetched. Content owners balked at that, too, initially, and it worked.

Goodbye to All That

Of course, the elephant in the living room of this discussion: Steve Jobs is dead. Take a look at him delivering the introduction of the iPod at a low-key event in 2001. Note the way he lays out his entire logical framework and gloats over every technical detail.

He's all about the coolness of the device here. But behind the curtain he's already constructed iTunes as a dedicated delivery system for that device and its proprietary, unshareable content-compression format.

Speculation is rife that, along with Jobs, innovation of this kind at Apple is also dead -- disruptive, surreal leaps forward, developing not just a product, but a suite of business channels at once, an ecosystem.

I think we've had indications that is the case: Apple now pays a dividend, an idea Jobs opposed, probably because he saw it as a sign the company was giving up on high-risk, high-reward gambles. Neither of Apple's recent product introductions carried breakthroughs -- the iPhone 5 and the iPad mini both looked suspiciously like old wine in new bottles.

But, finally, it will be Apple TV that tells the tale. New device? Or disruptive, seismic shift?

Either way, I'm inclined to think the stock remains a solid investment. But it would be nice to think the thrill ride isn't over.

Too often, our vision of the future is merely a mirror of the past. It has been nice, occasionally, to be made to think different.

-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in Asbury Park, N.J.

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