Apple is all over CES 2019.
True, the California-based tech giant doesn’t have an official presence here, apart from a single, pointed billboard. Apple still ditches the show, even if the convention fawns all over its products in the form of innumerable iPhone and Mac accessories. But there’s more going on this year.
It started with Samsung, who made a surprise pre-show announcement that its 2019 smart TVs would support AirPlay 2, letting iOS users natively stream music and video from iPhones and iPads, mirror their screens, and use their devices as a remote control. Both LG and Vizio followed Apple in announcing AirPlay 2 support, and Apple made it official by updating its AirPlay webpage to say AirPlay 2-enabled TVs were “coming soon.”
This is a big deal. No manufacturer can just add AirPlay support on their own. To get the official certification, they need to partner with Apple, which up till now has restricted the ability to speaker companies.
But Apple’s partnership with Samsung goes further. Samsung TVs will be the first ones to include iTunes, meaning owners can buy and play movies, TV shows, and music directly from Apple. In addition, LG and Vizio TVs will also include support for HomeKit, so iPhone users can control the sets via the Home app or even with Siri.
This is unusual for Apple, though not entirely unprecedented. It famously makes Apple Music available for Android devices, and if you go back even further, it offered iTunes on Windows to ensure Windows users didn’t have to buy a Mac to use an iPod. (Some attribute that decision as the key to how the iPod — and subsequently the iPhone and iPad — became runaway successes.)
If this were just about adding support for its latest standards to a few more devices, it would be notable, but not earth-shaking. But the iTunes move suggests this is about much more than simply giving AirPlay a boost. There’s more going on here, and it mostly has to do with Apple facing some hard truths:
1. Apple doesn’t own the streaming market
The Apple TV is a good product for Apple customers, but if you haven’t fully bought into the company’s ecosystem, there are any number of devices on the market that have most if not all of the feature of Apple TV for a much lower price. Amazon’s Fire TV, Google’s Chromecast, and Roku’s streaming devices are all more than capable competitors, sometimes with even more content to choose from. Unless you get most of your content from iTunes, there’s little reason to spend $149 on an Apple TV.
Besides preventing Apple TV from becoming a hit, the intense competition creates a downward spiral for iTunes. Since the service is only available on Apple devices, customers with other streaming devices will increasingly shift whatever attention they give to iTunes content toward cross-platform services like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, and others.
Apple doesn’t break out iTunes revenue or give much in the way of numbers — especially for its video content. But the fact is, for video, Apple hasn’t been anywhere near the influence it once was for music, and the silo-ing of iTunes has been a big factor here.
So why open things up now? Well…
2. Apple’s TV service needs help
It’s clear Apple is up to something big when it comes to video. It’s been rumored to have a premium TV service in the works for years, something along the lines of what you’d get if Sling TV’s live OTT service and Netflix’s Originals had a baby. In the last year it’s signed some head-turning contracts with the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, and even the creators of Sesame Street.
The Apple video service is certainly coming, but for the reasons outlined above, Apple TV can’t be the only vehicle for it. A service that’s confined to Apple devices by definition will have a smaller audience. Yes, Apple would sell some more Apple TVs as some consumers will see it as worth the price to get the content, but many won’t.
If the goal is to boost services — and Apple has repeatedly said, for years, that services are an extremely important and growing part of its business — those services need to reach the widest possible audience. Expanding iTunes beyond Apple devices will give Apple’s premium TV service the best chance of success.
3. Apple’s recent bad news, and what’s underlying it
All of this speaks to a larger issue, one that Apple’s investor note and stock drop last week directly addressed: Consumer behavior is changing, and Apple hasn’t done a good job of keeping up.
You can’t blame Apple for doubling and tripling down on the iPhone over the years, given how popular and profitable it was and still is. But the strategy behind it, which was, in the broadest sense, to keep its ecosystem walled off in order to sell more devices, isn’t going to fly if services are front and center.
The iPhone ride was always going to end, but to prevent last week’s news from being the beginning of a long decline, Apple needs to make adjustments to its business. For services, that means being open to putting them on competing platforms. It doesn’t mean the dam’s bursting — iMessage probably isn’t coming to Android anytime soon — but for content, you can probably expect iTunes and AirPlay coming to more devices.
Apple created a very successful business by building a walled garden, with the charge of admission being buying an Apple device. Now that the world outside has flourished in other ways, however, Apple has found it prudent to dismantle that wall, slowly and selectively, brick by brick.