Apple 2.0

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What did Tim Cook really say about Apple's TV project?

May 31, 2012: 11:43 AM ET

There's more than one way to interpret the broad hints he gave at All Things Digital

Click for the 6-minute video. Source: All Things D

FORTUNE -- Many commentators listened to Tim Cook's remarks about television at the All Things Digital conference Tuesday and concluded that he let the cat out of the bag.

"Let's be real: There's enough smoke here that there is some sort of fire," wrote SplatF's Dan Frommer, Reading Between the Lines. "Apple is probably going to make a TV,"

"If you're in the market for a new TV, hold off," Piper Jaffray's Gene Munster advised CNBC's viewers. "Apple has a new product coming and it's going to be hot."

"Come on Tim!" wrote Wired's Christina Bonnington. "You've basically announced that an iTV is all but inevitable."

Really? Because I listened to the same conversation and what I heard sounded more like a CEO doubling down on Apple's (AAPL) existing TV product: Apple TV. Here's what he said:

  • "Very uncharacteristic of us, we've stayed in the Apple TV product business."
  • Although Apple is "not a hobby kind of company ... with Apple TV, we've stuck in there."
  • It's not "a fifth leg of a stool," but it's doubling in sales. Last fiscal year Apple sold 2.8 million units; in the first six months of fiscal 2012 it sold 2.7 million.
  • "It's a key part of the ecosystem. This is an area of intense interest for us."
  • "The customer 'sat' [satisfaction] with that product is incredible. It's off the charts."
  • "And so, we're going to keep pulling the string and see where it takes us."

In his Q&A with Cook, AllThingsD's Walt Mossberg was pretty contemptuous of Apple TV in its current configuration: "Right now, to be honest, you don't have a lot of content on there."

Asymco's Horace Dediu, after listening to the same Q&A, quoted the father of disruption theory, Clay Christensen: "The next big thing is always beneath contempt."

In his Critical Path podcast Wednesday, Dediu didn't rule out the possibility that Apple will get into the business of manufacturing flat-screen HDTVs, as so many commentators expect. But he points out that there's a lot more to TV than a big glass screen: there are content deals, user interfaces, programming APIs, integration with other devices (like AirPlay), etc.

Moreover, the business model Apple is pursuing with its $99 set top box (a low-margin product used for selling content) is the opposite of its other businesses (high-margin hardware supported by apps and other content sold at break-even prices).

"Isn't this interesting," Dediu says. "This exactly fits the mold of the incubation of a disruptive opportunity within your own company."

Could it be, Dediu wonders aloud, that Apple's future TV product is already here, right under our noses, "hiding in plain sight?"

That's my take. See Tell me again: Why do we think Apple will build a TV set?

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Philip Elmer-Dewitt
Philip Elmer-DeWitt
Editor, Apple 2.0, Fortune

Philip Elmer-DeWitt has been following Apple since 1982, first for Time Magazine, and now on the Web for Fortune.com.

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