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by adam mathes
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Apple WWDC 2012 Predictions

I have no insider information or tips, this is all entirely based on conjecture and publicly available information, and totally unrealistic dreams I have for Apple.

AppleTV Goes Big

This is probably more hopeful than realistic, but I think Apple will finally try and significantly disrupt television business this time – AppleTV no longer just a “hobby.”

Not on the hardware front – the $99 Apple TV is already enough hardware and software. (And reasonably priced.)

The key changes with AppleTV must be positioning, content, and business model.

Positioning

AppleTV’s new positioning: this is the box you buy so you can cancel your cable TV subscription. They will have to present this in a more positive way, “the best content in the world, live and in HD without ads” but cord-cutting will be the real message.

Technologically savvy people are doing this already. Cable subscriptions are going down. Apple would be wise to be the company that takes it mainstream. GoogleTV should have been this product but they blew it so badly I wouldn’t expect them to ever recover. (Also, I think Google is fundamentally aligned with the big advertisers who are the real customers of television to actually disrupt the industry like Apple can.)

Content

The long rumored Apple TV “apps” will will feel a little like iOS apps but look a lot more like the a la carte cable plan your cable operator refuses to provide you.

Instead of one expensive bill, you can subscribe to “all you can view” months of television per “app.” These apps might be individual shows, studios, cable channels, or web sites with video.

Unsubscribing is just as easy and done through your AppleTV, not some difficult phone calls after confusing billing. Same ideas Apple brought to 3G subscriptions on the iPad.

And of course it works on your iPad and iPhone too, with a Newstand-like application managing it all.

Business Model

I think the per-episode (and season pass) pricing structure is a huge impediment to canceling cable due to uncertainty in monthly cost, and the annoyance of having small economic transactions interrupt “couch potato time.” This is solvable: users will actually pay a premium to not worry about this, as long as its lower than their increasing cable TV costs.

The announcement may also include apps for sports that have live, local content.

Given the high price paid for exclusive television coverage for local sports now, this may not really happen in a compelling enough way. (Out of region sports is compelling but not the same.)

If local sports are absent, there’s another tactic that Apple may take: which is using the high price of sports content in a longer term war of attrition against the cable providers.

Sports are (usually) the most expensive channels and there are some people (like me) who are completely disinterested in it. But because of bundled pricing, I end up paying about 10 times more to subsidize state-sanctioned monopoly sports teams I don’t watch than to the two channels I do watch regularly: Comedy Central and Cartoon Network. (Why am I giving more money to the Oakland Raiders than Jon Stewart? Seems wrong.)

There is strategic value in aggressively poaching non-sports watchers into canceling cable. Since exclusive sports aren’t going to decrease in cost and cable companies won’t forego them since it’s their last key advantage, this will further increase the costs cable providers pass on to their consumers, hastening their decline in subscriptions for non-sports watchers.

There are no longer impossibly hard technological hurdles to making a new more compelling AppleTV happen: the real impediments to this are the business model constraints, and the vertical integration, weird partnerships and agreements between television content producers and the rest of the distribution chain.

The only real technological hurdle is broadband and the lack of it in this country, which is directly related to the above since the broadband providers are usually cable television providers trying to sabotage internet video through bad infrastructure for internet. (See also: the new insane moves to usage-based pricing, which is so obviously targeted at people watching video online it should be illegal.)

I expect Apple’s offerings will remain ad-free. While this may sound like a disadvantage vs. selling content to others who bundle it with advertising, selling it directly without ads to consumers may in the long run be significantly more profitable per viewer to content producers – if those content producers actually have viewers for their content. The current bundling and subsidy system seems very bizarre.

(Another topic entirely: the world would maybe be a different and likely better place without television advertising – elections would be harder to influence, pharmaceuticals wouldn’t be as unethically marketed, brand advertising would pollute less of our brainwaves.)

Much like the record labels, television content producers might be wise to decouple their success from a decaying, high margin, consumer-hostile distribution network (remember CD’s?) even if it seems less profitable in the short term. People love television, but cable companies usually inspire a different kind of emotion. Cable television may go the way of the land-line (something no young person ever imagines paying for) though less quickly.

I don’t think we’ll see any Apple branded televisions.

Retina Displays on Mac

Less interesting to most, but exciting to me.

The current rumors are that Apple will release a high resolution (“retina”) display MacBook Pro and possibly other systems.

For me the real question is whether Apple follows the same pattern as iOS devices: offer 4X pixels and simply have applications double themselves or offer retina graphics that use the extra pixels.

The alternative (which is hard) would be to start transitioning Mac OS Apps to a more resolution independent style that adapts to a variety of densities and resolutions. The techno-nerd in me thinks Apple will find a way to do this elegantly and it will be amazing, the cynic in me says the “simpler” and perhaps better route is just 4X retina or nothing, and standardize on a few screen resolutions across the product line.

The variety of densities and resolutions is a little less important in the Mac ecosystem – Apple controls the hardware. Non-Apple external monitors represent some fraction of users these days, and real retina Thunderbolt displays might give users a compelling reason to choose Apple monitors.

I anticipate that this will be a lineup wide change: MacBook Pro, iMac, and Retina Thunderbolt Display. The MacBook Air will become the “budget” laptop without a retina display due to the necessary increase in video card power necessary right now.

Oh, and the new MacBook Pro will be an amazing MacBook Air-like design but with retina screen, larger SSD, and shockingly good video card.

I know it’s just more pixels on a screen but have you used one of the new iPads? It’s amazing.

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