Apple’s rumored interest in producing television sets might prove a bigger challenge than its efforts with other consumer devices, if only because it traditionally has proven difficult to figure out what consumers actually will embrace. It took decades to create and then deploy high-definition television.

Part of the issue was technology. A major breakthrough occurred when it proved feasible to transmit a full HDTV picture in the same amount of bandwidth used by the older analog format, for example.

But it wasn’t quite so obvious what the demand might be. The theory was that more lifelike, sharper pictures would provide the incentive to drive massive adoption. All other things being equal, that makes sense.

But all other things are not equal. There was the “chicken and egg” problem that most content was not going to be available in high definition format. Secondly, there were other trends at work that made HDTV more valuable.

Flat screens appealed to consumers, irrespective of demand for HDTV. And flat screens made possible larger screens. Larger screens made the line structure of analog TV more visible to the eye. So you might argue that HDTV made more sense because it provided a better picture on a larger screen.

So the demand for flat screens and larger screens might be said to have created a demand for HDTV, to an extent.

But given a continuing shift in the direction of “more realism,” some have recently seen great promise in “three-dimensional” TV. And, to be sure, U.S. sales are growing smartly, up
nearly 74 percent in units and 64 percent in revenue in the first quarter of 2012, compared to the first quarter of 2011, according to NPD Group, albeit from a very-low base.

3D TVs accounted for 11 percent of all flat-panel TV sales in the first quarter, nearly double that of last year, and 22 percent of all 40- inch or larger sets.

While sales continue to grow, the majority of consumers still feel 3D is not a crucial television feature. And again, larger screens might provide the demand.

NPD Group Director of Industry Analysis Ben Arnold says “3D TV sales growth thus far has been more a function of the feature’s attachment to bigger screens than true demand for the technology,”, he says.

So it isn’t quite so clear whether it is the 3D feature, or the screen size, that is driving purchases. Any proposed Apple TV would have to provide something much more important than screen size.

Presumably Apple would be looking at ways to integrate access to online as well as broadcast and other video services. There might be a new way to provide navigation.

But consumer TV remains challenging in terms of integrating video sources, since each video service provider uses its own decoders, programming guides and remote controls. Also, the TV has been seen as a sort of “monitor,” with many consumers expecting they will have to integrate external audio, game players, DVD and Blu-ray players, digital video recorders and Wi-Fi access to the Internet.

Apple might be able to integrate its own services. But it will be difficult to imposible to easy integrate all the other possible devices that users might want to use.

Perhaps Apple really can revolutionize the TV set. But it won’t be easy.

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