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Tuesday, January 31, 2012, 08:15 pm PT (11:15 pm ET)

First Apple TV prototypes "in the works" as Apple reportedly shopping part suppliers

Apple has contacted at least one major Asian supplier about purchasing television display components, checks by one analyst have revealed.

Piper Jaffray's Gene Munster told investors on Tuesday that he had recently spoken to a "major TV component supplier" about Apple's rumored plans to release a connected HDTV. Sources within the supplier reportedly told him that Apple had contacted "regarding various capabilities of their television display components."

Munster said he viewed the news as "continued evidence that Apple is exploring production of a television." Prior evidence that the analyst claims to have gathered surrounding an Apple television includes January 2011 meetings in Asia that suggested Apple was investing in manufacturing facilities for LCD displays as large as 50 inches and a September 2011 meeting with a "contact close to an Asian supplier" who claimed prototypes of an Apple set are in the works.

The firm believes Apple could be ready to release a television as early as late 2012, though Munster noted that "the timeline and stope of a revamped content solution is more uncertain." Various reports have suggested that Apple has run up against resistance from movie and TV studios that are believed to be hesitant to license their content for an Apple television.

The analyst went on to speculate on several possibilities that Apple could make use of to address the content issue. For instance, Apple could simply enable the television to manage pre-existing live TV service from a unified interface, or it could make use of network programming and web-based video services such as Netflix and Hulu. Finally, Munster suggested that Apple could look to offer monthly subscriptions "on an a-la-carte basis" for live TV packages from content providers, but he noted that this is likely the "most challenging scenario" because of existing licensing arrangements.

A separate report claimed late last year that one of Apple's most-desired features for an Apple television set is customized channel lineups. That report also noted that licensing for such a service would be "obviously much more complicated" than current offerings.

Piper Jaffray projects that Apple could sell 1.4 million of the 106 million internet-connected televisions estimated to be sold this year. The investment bank tentatively estimates that revenues from the device could reach $2.5 billion in 2012, $4.0 billion in 2013 and $6.0 billion in 2014.

Munster concluded his note by pointing out that Apple only enters mature markets in order to reinvent them. As such, he does not see Apple entering the TV market without a "revamped TV content solution."

"Since we know Apple is exploring television hardware, we are therefore led to conclude that the company is exploring a solution for live TV, and this solution could be one that has not yet been taken mainstream," he said.

Rumors of an Apple television set have persisted for years, with many of them originating from Munster himself. The likelihood of such a device arriving appears to have increased in recent months as numerous outlets have put forth evidence that Apple is working on a connected TV. Of course, the project also gained credence from a much-quoted excerpt from Apple co-founder Steve Jobs' biography that revealed he believed he had "cracked" the secret to a simple and elegant TV user interface.

Earlier in January, the USA Today claimed Apple design boss Jonathan Ive had a 50-inch television prototype hidden away in a "locked-down studio."

A number of patent applications discovered by AppleInsider for technologies such as advanced backlighting and a simplified universal remote also indicate that Apple is, at the least, investigating the possibility of a full-fledged television set.