The biggest surprise of CES this year came from Apple, a company that didn’t give a keynote speech, didn’t have a booth on the show floor, but nevertheless dominates the show year after year from afar. A bunch of TVs from Samsung, LG, Sony, and Vizio will support AirPlay 2.
It was a surprise because none of the announcements leaked, sure, but it was also a surprise because it ran completely counter to the way things usually go at CES. It also ran counter to the way things usually go with Apple. But even though nobody seemed to see it coming, it was also — at least, in retrospect — inevitable.
Here’s how things usually go at CES: a ton of consumer electronics companies make hundreds of announcements, we sift through them all to find the most interesting stuff, and Apple sits it out. Except Apple usually finds a way to make its presence known. There have often been mysteriously timed leaks that have taken the attention away from Las Vegas, for example. This year, its presence was more overt: a giant billboard touting Apple’s privacy stance.
APPLE WASN’T AT CES, BUT IT WAS MORE PRESENT THAN EVER
We all figured that would be it, but then Samsung announced that its TVs would have an iTunes app. The cognitive dissonance of the announcement was almost too much to bear. A tainted software brand that most people still associate with music instead of video (iTunes) coming to a fierce competitor’s (Samsung) TV, which runs an operating system (Tizen) that it would previously have been impossible to imagine Apple touching with a 50-foot pole.
That would have been wild enough, but then LG, Vizio, and Sony followed suit with AirPlay 2 and HomeKit support. Sony, in particular, felt weird both because Sony has historically loved doing its own thing instead of cooperating with others and also because its TVs run Android.
Reader: this is not how CES usually goes.
CES is the land where platform wars confuse consumers and hold back progress in the industry — especially the TV industry. VHS versus Betamax. HD DVD versus Blu-ray. HDR10 versus Dolby Vision. Instead, a ton of companies all agreed to support a single standard created by a competitor, with neither preamble nor drama.
Once we got over the initial shock, though, something else became very obvious: this is just a first step for Apple. There is a lot more industry cooperation coming. There has to be. As Peter Kafka noted earlier in the week, the math turns out to be relatively simple and relatively obvious. If Apple wants to make real money on the TV service it’s launching later this year, it needs that service to work on more than just Apple TV hardware.
But the list of supported TVs announced at CES is pretty short. People don’t buy that many TVs per year, either. So if Apple’s services will only work on new (or relatively recent) TVs, that won’t get the job done.
But you know what would? The 27 million-plus Roku boxes that are currently in use. Or — just sit with this thought for a minute — the more than 30 million Fire TV devices currently plugged into televisions. Heck, there’s also Chromecast.
Apple making a TV app for any of those devices would certainly feel like a huge surprise. But that surprising possibility is beginning to also feel inevitable.