Apple CEO Tim Cook spoke about television for five minutes during his interview at the D11 conference last night, and it would seem that he gave little away. However, there were insightful moments in the interview with Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher that do give an indication that this is definitely something that Apple is investigating. Cook also revealed interesting data about the popularity of the current Apple TV set-top box.

Cook began speaking about television at around 10 minutes into the interview when, having mentioned that Apple has "several more game changers in us," Swisher noted that at the conference last year Cook had spoken about television, "You seemed very bullish on it," she said.

The popularity of the Apple TV

In response to Swisher's question, Cook provided an update on Apple and television: "We're still playing in TV through Apple TV, and Apple TV, I don't remember where we were last year, but let me give you a little bit of an update here, for several years we've been selling a few hundred thousand, we've now sold over 13 million, and about half of those in the last year."

Asymco's Horace Dediu claims that the number is actually closer to 19 million if the first generation Apple TV is included, notes Fortune.

In an article, Fortune asks how the 13 million Apple TV sales stacks up against the competition. The answer, excluding Xbox and Playstation:

  • Apple TV: More than 13,000,000
  • Roku: More than 5,000,000
  • Boxee Box: About 200,000 (before it was discontinued last summer)

A point of contrast: in December last year Morgan Stanley analyst Katy Huberty suggested that Apple could sell at least 13 million Apple branded televisions for about $1,060 each.

It would appear that the popularity of the product that Jobs used to describe as a hobby has somewhat taken the company by surprise. "Frankly the popularity of it has become much larger than we would have thought. And we're not marketing it, or these sorts of things that you would normally do, and that we do for our other products. So it's encouraging," revealed Cook later on in the interview.

Testing the water with Apple TV

Having emphasised the recent popularly of the Apple TV, it appears that Cook sees it as a useful learning experience for the company. Cook continued: "That business has found many many more customers that love the Apple TV experience. That has been great for customers but also very good from a learning point of view for Apple." Some could interpret that as suggesting that, in the same way as Apple learned about the phone market through a partnership with Motorola and the ROKR mobile phone, the company can learn about the market for television through the Apple TV.

Cook emphasised that the company is learning from the Apple TV and that it is an area of interest for the company. "It continues to be an area of great interest to us. And I do think that the Apple TV product, the relationships that build around it, and the work that we've done technically around it provide a lot more knowledge than we would have had without that product." 

If TV is broken, how will Apple fix it?

The assumption is that via Apple TV the company can learn the expectations and requirements of customers. It is clear to Cook that the current TV model is broken: "I think many of us would agree that there's lots of things about the TV experience that can be better, we answered some of those clearly not all of those, with Apple TV, and we're going to continue to make that better," promised Cook.

He later added: "When you look at the TV experience it's not an experience that I think may people love, it's not an experience that you would say has been bought up to date for this decade. It's still an experience that is still to much like it was ten years ago and in many cases 20 years ago. "

The off switch

Swisher and Mossberg pushed for more information, with Swisher pointing out that Apple's late CEO Steve Jobs had talked about wanting to change TV dramatically, and Mossberg asking "Is Hollywood holding it up? Is something technical holding it up?"

As expected Cook offered no answers. "I don't want to go into detail. As you might have guessed," he said.

He added: "I don't want to go any further on this because I don't want to give anyone any ideas they don't already have."

Emphasising: "I have nothing to announce, but it's an area of incredible interest."

Steve Jobs' television revelations

Speculation that Apple will launch a television was fuelled in part by Steve Jobs’ own authorised biography. Author Walter Isaacson noted that Jobs: "Very much wanted to do for television what he had done for computers, music players and phones: make them simple and elegant."

Isaacson quoted Jobs saying that he had "cracked" television.

It's not just Jobs who had sparked the rumours. Cook also stoked the faire at D10 last year and in various interviews over the past few months.

At D10 last year Cook described TV as "Interesting". Cook also expressed dismay with the current TV watching experience in an interview with NBC News last year. He said that when he turns on the TV, he feels like he has "gone backwards in time by 20 to 30 years."

This January in a financial results conference call, Cook said of television: "I tend to believe that there is a lot we can contribute to this space. I don't want to be more specific."

Watch the video of Tim Cooks' interview at D11 here.

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