Word this week that Apple Inc. has given up trying to make a TV put one of its most prominent financial analysts, Gene Munster of Minneapolis-based Piper Jaffray & Co., in an awkward spot.
Munster first told Apple investors and the media in 2009 that the company was working on a TV and predicted it would emerge in 2010 or 2011. When no TV emerged, he stuck to the prediction, sliding the date but remaining confident in what his research was showing.
His adherence, and the criticism he took from some investors and journalists as the years wore on, became emblematic of the insatiable desire to know what’s coming next from Apple specifically and in high tech generally.
By bursting the speculation about its TV, Apple signaled something else to watch in the high-tech world. It is that, after several decades in which advances were cataloged by the arrival of a new gadget such as the PC or the smartphone, the proverbial next big thing is less likely to be a single device than a confluence of changes across a broad range of products from cars to garage doors, washing machines to bathroom lamps.
On Monday, just hours after the high-profile activist investor Carl Icahn released a letter predicting an Apple TV set would be released next year, the Wall Street Journal published a story that, citing sources at Apple, said the company gave up the project more than a year ago.
The following day, Munster did something rare for a Wall Street analyst: he owned up to his mistake with clients and investors.
“Our latest thinking prior to this story was that Apple would launch a television in 2016,” he wrote in a report to investors. “Based on this report, we no longer expected a television to launch indefinitely.”
The Journal report said Apple had been working on a TV set for nearly a decade, before Munster first disclosed it, and confirmed some of the details he previously told investors.
In his follow-up, Munster called that “small consolation.” Having missed Apple’s decision to pull the plug on the project, Munster felt he needed to issue the mea culpa. “Given I’ve dragged people through this for so long, it was the least I could do,” he said in an interview with the Star Tribune later in the week.
Munster said Apple is still focused on developing new products for the living room and believes that its existing set-top box, called Apple TV, will be getting new features this fall. By giving up on a TV set itself, Munster said the prospect for the emergence of a new product category from Apple is diminished for several years.
That matters less than before, though, he said. Apple and other companies are instead jockeying for a central role in the rapidly evolving environment in which many everyday products are connected to the Internet, and the information being exchanged among them reshapes how businesses work and people live.
“If you look at the big companies, Facebook, Google, Apple, they’re probably not going to be doing the individual devices like lights, locks, refrigerators,” Munster said. “They’re going to be the fabric that holds it all together.”
Apple’s gadgets, software and services are stitched more tightly together than rivals’ and provide such convenience to consumers that it can set higher prices and defy the pressure on profits that besets many electronics makers, Munster said.
“They’ve got devices, user experience and now payments,” he said. “I would argue they continue to defy the laws of profitability if they can continue to build experiences that people are willing to pay for, which they have done for the last decade.”
Munster said he’s been spending most of his time lately trying to understand developments in augmented reality, a term that describes where real world meets the power of connected digital devices.
As he dives into topics that look a bit too futuristic to some, Munster said he’s been thinking about how in 1995 people didn’t realize how pervasive the Internet would be ten years later, and in 2005 people didn’t realize how important smartphones would be today.
“Ten years from now, I think we’re going to look back and say we didn’t realize how connected everything in our life would be,” Munster said.