Think big, Apple

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Think big, Apple

Apple almost certainly made a sound decision by giving up on the idea of developing a television set. There’s not much it could have contributed that Korean market leaders haven’t already thought of. Nonetheless, Apple could still change the way we watch television and movies if it decided to create a smart projector. There is a market for these devices that Apple, with its gift for making user-friendly gadgets, could take by storm.

In September 2014, Apple chief executive Tim Cook said he was interested in TV because it was “stuck back in the ’70s”: “Think about how much your life has changed and all the things around you that have changed. And yet, TV - when you go in your living room to watch the TV or wherever it might be, it almost feels like you’re rewinding the clock and you’ve entered a time capsule, and you’re going backwards. The interface is terrible.”

In fact, the interfaces are not that awful. Smart TVs from Samsung and LG, which account for 38 percent of set purchases, are just about as easy to use as the Apple TV set-top box. There’s not much to streamline. I’ve never heard anyone complain about their TV being hard to use.

Projectors are a different matter. I use one, so I know.

People buy projectors because they can produce an image of almost any size. A screen or a flat white wall turns the room into a cinema. Kids love it, and on big game days you can turn your apartment into a sports bar. There’s a price to pay, however: Even the best of these devices is stuck in the past. If you’re a connoisseur of 1970s interfaces, check out these Top 10 lists from CNet and PC Magazine.

These top machines are dumb devices that have to be connected to a computer or a cable or set-top box. There is a new generation of “smart” projectors, running the Android operating system, but it’s almost impossible to find one that combines good image and sound quality with a clean interface, decent wireless connectivity and enough computing power to make it autonomous. I acquired a “smart” projector after weeks of market research and ended up using it with a computer, an Apple TV, a Chromecast device and a cable box.

This is the kind of market that is ripe for Apple to work the same kind of magic as it did with music players and mobile handsets.

As with the iPhone, Apple would need to get the combination of features right. The iCinema - let’s call it that - would be placed a short distance from the screen or wall, making it easy to use in an ordinary-sized room. It would project a high-definition image and pack a decent sound system. It would run Mac OS or the mobile operating system iOS, and include a powerful processor and adequate storage. It would also incorporate the Apple TV, making it possible to watch on-demand movies and other content without the need for a separate device. One would be able to use an iPhone or a standard Apple keyboard to operate it.

Apple already produces all the elements of such a device except the optics. Sourcing those, however, would be much less of a problem than procuring TV screens from potential competitors such as Samsung and LG.

According to Bloomberg Intelligence, almost 229 million LCD TV sets were sold last year, compared with 8.3 million projectors. The opportunity for Apple is to turn projectors from a niche product for geeks into a mainstream alternative to TV sets. That could truly change the way we watch at home, taking us from the 1970s into the 21st century. That’s a far more realistic goal than, say, beating Toyota and Volkswagen at building cars.

*The author is a Berlin-based Bloomberg View columnist.

by Leonid Bershidsky

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