A Quick Two Cents on Comcast & Time Warner Cable

It seems a lot of people are not thrilled about the prospect of Comcast buying Time Warner Cable. I’m one of them. A transaction like this one, where #1 and #2 are joining, should benefit the public in some way. I don’t think that would be the case here.

Comcast is absolutely right when it says not much will change. Comcast and Time Warner Cable both have monopolies in their respective regions. Joining the two won’t decrease competition today, as the two companies don’t really go toe to toe in many markets.

The thing is, if Comcast is allowed to buy TWC, that means TWC won’t ever have the chance to enter Comcast’s territory to compete. Time Warner Cable may be number two, but it has the best shot at expanding into the markets that Comcast currently serves. An acquisition would leave it up to Cox (a very-distant third) to apply pressure.

When you look at it that way, the purchase would remove any shot at meaningful competition in the future. That is bad for consumers.

Comcast has made it a point to keep us focused on the TV side of things (and the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board did a great job following the laser pointer) but broadband is what’s really at stake here. So while Comcast is pointing to services like Netflix and Hulu as reasons the deal should go through, look instead at the number of broadband options you have in your neighborhood, and then remember that Comcast wants to acquire the only cable broadband provider with a shot at catching up.

If government regulators do their jobs, this deal won’t go through.

Some Thoughts on the Next Apple TV

According to the folks at 9 to 5 Mac, we could be getting a new Apple TV in the first half of this year.

From 9 to 5 Mac:

The reference is inside of an Apple TV framework related to the device’s AirPlay functionality. The mention of the next Apple TV is the highlighted “AppleTV4,1.” The current Apple TV is “AppleTV3,2? while “3,1? is the 1080P model introduced in March 2012, and 2,1 is the first iOS model introduced in September 2010.

The most current version of the Apple TV, the 2012 model, runs on a single-core Apple A5 and contains 512 MB of RAM and 8 GB of storage. In terms of processing power and memory, it comes in near the iPhone 4S or the iPad 2.

With games and apps becoming more demanding, those specs aren’t going to fly if Apple plans to do more with the Apple TV. Now’s the time to significantly update the company’s “hobby” box.

Obviously, upgraded hardware is important. I think Apple will bring the next Apple TV in line with the iPhone 5S and iPad Air. If we’re going to get apps and games — especially games that give consoles a run for their money — the next Apple TV will need more powerful guts.

Can Apple beef up the specs and still keep the price at $99? That’s the big question. I wouldn’t put it past the company to work some magic, but this could be a $149 or $199 Apple TV.

If that’s the case, we might see the current 2012 model stay at $99 for those who only want to stream music, movies and TV shows.

As for the rumor about the TV tuner — that is entirely possible. With HDMI-in, the Apple TV can act as a sort of “middle man” and pass content from a cable or satellite box through to a TV; the perk being that we interact with an Apple user interface instead of the default cable box UI.

I believe that Apple, at one time, wanted to play a bigger part in delivering live TV content. Unfortunately, it’s an enormous industry that is extremely resistant to change. The pass-through model (that is also used by the Xbox One) is probably the best we’re going to do for a while.

WWDC is coming this June, so Apple could either announce before that (say, March or April) or at the conference itself. Then we’ll see what Apple really has planned for TV.

The iTV? It’s the Apple TV

I could be proven very wrong come December, when the supposed iTV is rumored to be launching, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Apple is not entering the TV set business anytime soon.

That’s not to say that the industry isn’t ripe for disruption; it is, but I don’t see that being the case on the hardware side of things. Television sets themselves are increasing in quality and decreasing in price rapidly, and if 3D taught us anything, it’s that the TV is one device people aren’t looking to replace as often as, say, a smartphone. Again, the sets themselves are good in terms of hardware. It’s the user interface that no one seems to be able to get right, and that’s not just the fault of TV manufacturers, but of cable and satellite set-top box manufacturers, too.

But why should Apple get into the low-margin TV hardware business to fix that when it can sell TV owners a better experience for $99?

The current Apple TV is plenty capable in terms of hardware; it just hasn’t had the software in place to start a revolution. The new UI upgrade that came with the March model is a step in the right direction, but there’s no arguing that, at this moment in time, the Apple TV actually offers less than competing boxes like the Roku. There are fewer content sources available by default, and there’s no system in place to add new ones.

I think this will be rectified in a few weeks at next month’s Worldwide Developers Conference, a place where Apple regularly unveils important chances to the iOS platform that powers devices like the iPhone, iPad, and, yes, the Apple TV. Here’s what I’m expecting for the Apple TV:

  • App Store (finally)
  • Siri voice control through Siri-enabled devices like the iPhone 4S… and the 3rd generation iPad, which I believe will be blessed with Siri in the next iOS version
  • Partnership announcements with cable TV providers where the Apple TV acts as a IPTV set-top box (much like the Xbox 360 is doing with Comcast and Verizon FiOS) — the perk here being that Apple controls the user interface

Three big upgrades and three ways for Apple to finally assert itself with the Apple TV. No more playing around. Support for applications that can finally begin to tap the potential hidden inside the Apple TV for years. Siri to give you a faster way to navigate through your content (“Play ‘Quantum of Solace,’ please”), both from the Internet and from your cable TV provider. And yes, cable. An Apple-designed interface to smoke the user interface on that Motorola box you rent from your cable provider. I hope this is the area that Steve Jobs cracked, because it’s been very bad for a very long time.

To me, it would make sense when adding Siri integration for Apple to also put out an upgraded remote with an embedded microphone (keep in mind — the 3rd generation Apple TV has a Bluetooth chip!), but Apple could also decide to leave that as a perk for users who are part of the mobile iOS ecosystem.

WWDC isn’t too far away (June 11), so we’ll find out fairly quickly how right or wrong I am with these predictions. I just don’t see the TV set industry as one Apple would jump into when it can insert itself into the conversation with its $99 “hobby” box, an OS upgrade, and the tireless work of its innovative developer community.