Apple Inc. (AAPL) co-founder Steve Jobs died six years ago, and his successor as CEO, Tim Cook, on Thursday, Oct. 5, used the anniversary to encourage his employees to dig deeper and think big:
Remembering Steve today. Still with us, still inspiring us. "Make something wonderful, and put it out there." pic.twitter.com/7aOCPkwU0U— Tim Cook (@tim_cook) October 5, 2017
Ever ambitious, Jobs wanted to remake television. He had a bold vision, and though the details remain fuzzy, his aim appears to have been something that would transform the TV experience. Yet six years after Jobs' death, Apple has yet to make a TV interface that might go beyond the current generation of boxes that transfers internet streams to the television in the home.
Apple in September unveiled its latest Apple TV, a unit that supports 4K ultra-high-resolution reproduction while providing viewers a variety of ways to gain access to live sports, live news, TV shows and films. But the latest version of the Apple TV is more a play on high-definition than integration. In typical Apple fashion, it packs Dolby Vision and so-called high-dynamic-range resolution into the set-top box.
But what it doesn't tackle is the search and discovery experience. And that was Jobs' aim.
Jobs, of course, started Apple in 1976 along with Steve Wozniak and Ronald Wayne. Over the next 30 years, he would help to create the Macintosh, the iPod and the iPhone.
In August 2011, just six weeks before Jobs died, the Apple co-founder called longtime tech columnist Walt Mossberg to exclaim that he'd figured out how to remake television. The two men had planned to get together to talk about Jobs' ideas, but the Apple founder died soon afterward.
In his book "Steve Jobs," Walter Isaacson shed a bit more light on the TV subject, quoting the iconoclastic inventor as saying: "I'd like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use. It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud. No longer would users have to fiddle with complex remotes for DVD players and cable channels. It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it."
Jobs' vision, Mossberg told a small gathering of attendees at a February Recode conference, and later on The Verge, was to break down television in much the same way that had remade the music business. TV viewing could be organized by genres or decades or actresses rather than by the age-old construct of networks.
But forcing Time Warner Inc. (TWX) or Walt Disney Co. (DIS) or Comcast Corp.'s (CMCSA) NBCUniversal to allow Apple to reorder the presentation of their content was a nonstarter. Eddy Cue, Apple's lead dealmaker, said as much in February, explaining that his company's ideas around TV had been met with a big dose of resistance.
"There's technology problems and then there's content licensing problems, which are of a totally different nature," said Shawn Carolan, a managing partner at Menlo Ventures, an early investor in Roku Inc. (ROKU) , Siri and Uber Technologies Inc., among many others. "Apple is in a funny position because the content people, who have this immense power because of these serial monopolies, don't want to give Apple a proprietary advantage -- they see how their buddies down in the music industry studios got their asses handed to them."Apple, of course, famously remade the music industry with iTunes. Arguably, the music industry was foolishly trying to protect an outdated business model, but it was Apple that capitalized on the transition to digital by creating a platform that ultimately allowed the industry to curb pirating, which was generating no revenue.
Somewhat similarly, the largest network-TV owners are doing their best to protect the traditional cable bundle despite an accelerating decline in subscribers. In recent months, the content companies have licensed their networks to internet-based pay-TV platforms such as AT&T Inc.'s (T) DirecTV Now, Alphabet Inc.'s (GOOGL) YouTube TV and Dish Network Corp.'s (DISH) Sling TV.
Yet growth has been slow. Thus far, there's been little to distinguish one from another. Each one is organized around the same well-worn networks. Innovation has been hampered by the need to control distribution. Even Hulu LLC, jointly owned by Disney, Comcast, Time Warner and Twenty-First Century Fox Inc. (FOXA) , had myriad problems trying to unify its owners under a common business before launching its Live TV service in May.
Apple, Comcast and Alphabet are holdings in Jim Cramer's Action Alerts PLUS Charitable Trust Portfolio. Want to be alerted before Cramer and the AAP team buy or sell AAPL, CMCSA and GOOGL? Learn more now.
More of What's Trending on TheStreet:
To be sure, Apple has been in negotiations with the major content creators for licensing deals for many years, said Shahid Khan, founder of Mediamorph Inc., a digital content supply-chain software company backed by Liberty Global plc (LBTYA) and Advance/Newhouse Investment Partnership. Apple, which wasn't immediately available for comment, was aiming to launch its own internet-based pay-TV service but the project fell short of fruition.
"There was a window of opportunity where Apple could have been the leader in this whole [internet pay-TV] space," Khan said. "They didn't need to do a $3,000 TV. They could have used the AppleTV box to come up with a compelling offering, but they missed that window."
Apart from some technical issues, the resistance from the major media conglomerates was considerable. Allowing Apple to play TV-industry disruptor was simply a risk the country's largest content creators did not want to take, especially after iTunes ran roughshod over the largest music labels.
"The content owners are trying to figure out how to survive in an over-the top world," said Gene Munster, a longtime Apple equity analyst and founding partner of Loup Ventures Management LLC, referring to so-called over-the-top video services that don't require a cable subscription. "And they don't want to jump into something only to have their businesses upended by Apple."
Apple's ideas about remaking the TV also were met with the realization that its ideal product would have to be priced far too high to find a mass market, given the long replacement cycle of the average household television. The cost of producing a piece of TV hardware capable of aggregating an assortment of remote controls, in addition to aggregating loads of content simply was prohibitive.
Apple also has proved over the years that it doesn't like making a product that connects well with other products, or content makers. Apple Music, for instance, is still inaccessible to many Android phones.
Meanwhile, Netflix Inc. (NFLX) has become the great disruptor in the TV space. Subscription-based, ad-free digital platforms have emerged as consumers' preferred choice -- and the better business model.
"Unlike with music, the OTT video market developed without Apple," said Glenn Hower, a digital media analyst at Parks Associates. "Apple ended up losing a lot of control of the video content market."
For the moment, Apple seemingly has shelved any plans to produce a TV product that might transform how we watch television, or in modern parlance, how we consume video. Instead, under Cook, the company continues to push ahead with incremental improvements to Apple TV.
The set-top box may not yet be the kind of paradigm-shifting, industry-remaking product in the tradition of the iPhone, iTunes or the iPad, but that's largely because TV is proving to be a very difficult business for any technology company to successfully figure out.
"TV, more broadly, has yet to be cracked," Munster said. "It's still a long ways away from being figured out. There's the interface problem and there's the content problem, and both of those are works in progress."
A version of this article previously was published on June 7, 2017.