Apple, Tivo, and the iConcert
You’ve all heard the rumor by now: Steve Jobs is finally in the market for a Tivo. Not the device but the entire company. Or at least that’s what some industry analysts want us to believe.
Whether or not a deal happens is another story. I’ve gone on record in the past about how badly Apple needs a set-top box strategy, but never did I actually see any evidence of such progress. All we’ve heard from Cupertino on the television front is how uneven the playing field is in the world of cable and satellite television. How cable companies have too much power. How satellite companies are building their own boxes. How Apple is a computer company, not a TV company. And so on, and so on, and so on. And to make matters worse, our man, The Steve, just flat out hates television, calling it “the most corrosive piece of technology that I’ve ever seen”. He doesn’t watch much of it and he brought his kids up to do the same.
But then you have to ask yourself the question “Does Steve Jobs not like television as a medium, or does he simply not like the way it is presented to him?” I suspect it may be the latter. By that I mean, he doesn’t like crap programming, he doesn’t like commercial breaks every 15 minutes, and he doesn’t like the dayparted nature of the traditional television schedule.
So what is the killer app that could change the way Steve views television and get Apple right into the living room game?
How about music.
I’ve been in the business long enough to think that someone has undoubtedly thought of this already, but what if Apple’s set-top box angle is through the music industry? What if your set-top box remote had a button on it which took you to a listing of live concerts which had either occurred in the past or were about to occur? U2 is playing in Dublin on Friday night. You want to watch it on Saturday. Hit record, pay $10, wait for it to come down over your connection, and then come back on Saturday to watch it. Like the show? Burn it to CD or DVD and it’s yours. Say hello to the iConcert.
Hey wait. $10 is exactly how much people pay for regular CDs online these days.
So by creating another $10 CD to sell where none existed before, you’d be increasing record sales by leaps and bounds. Do you think Columbia Records would rather sell one original U2 CD every couple of years or 30 original U2 CDs? It would also help record companies transform themselves from mere distributors of a physical medium to promoters, developers, and managers of the bands themselves.
Perhaps even more important than the benefits to the record companies are the benefits to the user. Now a $10 downloaded CD is for the first time tangibly better than a pre-pressed CD you’d buy in the store. Why? Because you get the video with it! And you get something not available in stores in the first place.
Delivering the goods
Obviously this is a lot of bits we’re talking about. A two-hour concert at standard definition with high fidelity sound is going to come in between 500 and 700 megs. At 700 megs, you can’t quite get DVD quality but you can certainly get “digital cable” quality which is what people are accustomed to right now. Apple would have three options to get you this asset:
- Via an IP-based download coming straight from Apple’s servers, hosted most likely by Akamai (whom Apple owns a significant stake in)
- Via an Apple-moderated peer-to-peer network which sent you the DRM’d bits from 10 to 20 different computers at the same time
- Via a group of channels hosted by DirecTV, Dish, or a cable company
Apple could choose one delivery method, but they could just as easily choose all three. #1 would be used for what you’d call the “Long Tail” concerts — concerts which are in low demand, perhaps because they are fringe bands or occurred very long ago. #2 would be used for hot concerts which occurred in the recent past or are otherwise popular and buzzworthy — this is the type of asset that thrives in a P2P environment. And finally, #3 would be used for live or nearly live events which are expected to be quite popular — by sending this sort of asset down over a channel instead of IP, lag time and bandwidth costs are all but eliminated.
Obstacles to the model
There are clearly some things Apple would be up against in order to make this, or any set-top box strategy work.
Firstly, you’re going to still have music piracy to deal with. This is true with or without a set-top box strategy though so it’s hardly a new issue the industry is dealing with. Certain groups of people will always pirate music. The best you can do is tell them it’s wrong, offer a reasonably priced and easy legal alternative, and sell as much as you can to the law-abiding world.
Secondly, you face the strong possibility of cable and/or satellite companies becoming hostile and either forbidding your device from their networks or otherwise making life hard on you. The recently introduced government-mandated cable card and existing anti-trust laws lessen this threat tremendously, but it’s still there and Steve Jobs is wary of it.
Thirdly, high definition. You can make the argument that anybody building standard definition components for TV systems these days is wasting their time. More and more households are moving to high-def, and if the cable company’s box or the satellite company’s box is the only way to get your high-def, you’re going to opt for that over the Apple device 9 out of 10 times… especially as high-def begins to enter its own in the next few years. Apple could feasibly build an HD device, but at that point, we aren’t talking about low-end chips anymore and the price probably increases by 50%.
And finally, there is the overhead of getting a concert video relay system ready for prime time. You can’t just take one video camera, throw it in front of the stage and hit record. All concerts which were to be sold over a system like this would need full soundboard audio, at least 2 or 3 camera angles, and some editing and production. In some cases, this is already going on at the show, but in other cases, it would need to be added. But then again, who knows… I’d pay to download a one-camera, bare bones concert of Wilco at The Gorge if it were available. If the setting is intimate enough, fairly raw footage can sometimes suffice.
Is it possible?
So am I crazy here or does this sound like it could actually work? When people think about what Tivo could bring to the Apple arsenal, they tend to think in terms of time-shifted television and on-demand movies — and they’re right to examine those angles — but by leveraging their dominance in the music space, Apple could create a whole new revenue model for the music industry and sneak into your living room at the same time.
I know there are other factors that I’m leaving out here which significantly complicate the situation, but is this something that you yourself would use? Would you buy the unit, considering all it does, for the price of a Mac Mini? Would you buy a few live DVD/CDs per year from your favorite bands for about $10 each? What other concerns do you have with such an offering and could you see them being resolved?