During Steve Jobs’s (released in 2014) interim Apple leadership, the company released (in May 2013) a podcasting app, the intriguingly named All Access, which offered subscriptions to music, TV and radio. Through this app, iTunes consumers could tune into more than 200 international radio stations. They were able to subscribe to their favourite programmes and log in to their existing accounts. iTunes subscription is fairly straightforward: it involves a monthly fee of either $10 per device or $10 per year. This extended Apple’s reach from the devices of its customers to those of radio broadcasters and content providers.
It seemed a natural evolution, and it was – for a while. For a couple of years, Apple enjoyed more than 7m subscribers to the app. But soon, there was a slowdown, and in November 2014 All Access abruptly shut down. It was not long after that, late in 2015, that Apple released its first fully designed TV subscription service, which it called Apple Music. It was also called Apple TV (over-the-top).
A lot has happened since then. The hardware industry now offers a number of subscription television packages, and the streaming video market has become a multibillion-dollar business in the US alone. Apple, perhaps naively, thought that TV would be easier to perfect than other forms of entertainment – namely music and movies – and, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, continued to search for a way to navigate the landscape. This inertia stemmed partly from an investor’s refusal to believe the closed-loop model would succeed in such a highly fragmented space. But, ultimately, what was proved not to be “different enough” from what was out there was a change of strategy: by “dropping” the All Access app, Apple had contributed to both the near-elimination of the set-top box market, and the success of Amazon and Hulu.
In comparison with their competitors, Apple’s subscriptions services remain relatively modest in scale, but have done little to influence the market. Revenue from its nine paid subscription services in 2016 totalled $1.6bn. “Our services business has incredible momentum,” said the new Apple CEO, Tim Cook, in his first earnings call in August 2016. Since then, Apple Music has entered a US price war, charging $9.99 a month, alongside those of the other subscription services. While a success on a relative scale, it remains small for the biggest service.
Earlier this year, Apple changed course again, dropping prices. The new Apple TV 4K (with a 4K picture, streaming at higher speeds) has a four-channel “curated” TV offering in the “home screen”, which is available as a tiered option, starting at $179 for 64GB, and $199 for 128GB. The service is still only available in the US for now. There are many other TV services available, including those of Google, YouTube and Dish Network, but with Apple’s new model, it is the premier media centre.
And yet, this is an imperfect service. There are a couple of reasons why: Apple largely seeks to “unlock the potential” of apps on the television. In order to “reach the most people”, this means more apps rather than fewer. In an interview, Tim Cook described the new model as “a lot bigger” than Apple Music, which launched with one million songs available at launch. Others have described the Apple TV as a slice of the Apple App Store, reaching the “99% that doesn’t have Apple TV”. However, we have yet to see whether Apple’s ambition of making TV more accessible (one Apple marketing slogan has “Smarter TV for everyone”) will be realised. Apple needs to move beyond wishful thinking: by dropping a set-top box-like offering, it did not see the kind of market growth that Apple Music has achieved. In this respect, Apple has to satisfy its customers on a regular basis, or their loyalty may wane.
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At a minimum, the new Apple TV should be simple. We argued that the box was “a hardware marriage”, a monument to PC design which was made by a company that has been into a 21st-century perspective on interactivity. This television app should easily understand how to use an Apple device to set it up and serve it up. An easy-to-use set-top box would enable subscribers to access the TV right where it is needed – in the bedroom, in the lounge, even in the bedroom, an area rarely used. It would be a welcome