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Apple's messy media smorgasbord

Big Bird on stage at Apple TV+ launch
Screenshot from Apple video

Apple's reputation for launching products that transform entire markets could become a casualty of its transition from selling gadgets to peddling "services" — the company's catch-all label for the grab-bag of TV, news media and gaming bundles it announced Monday.

Why it matters: Apple's genius under Steve Jobs lay in focusing on a very small number of unique products, but its new offerings are scattershot additions to already crowded media marketplaces. Some may prove hits, others may flounder — but none of them looks poised to "change the world," no matter how many times Apple and its partners repeat that phrase.

Between the lines: Apple's event featured one speaker after another — from CEO Tim Cook and other Apple execs to Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey — lauding what Cook called "the power of creativity" to "move us and inspire us, surprise us and challenge our assumptions."

  • The formidable array of directors, actors, musicians and other artists who are contributing their work to Apple TV+, the new premium content service, are fully capable of doing those things.
  • But so are many of their peers currently working for Netflix, Amazon, and other content studios.
  • A distributor is a distributor: Consumers are no more likely to choose a show based on which streaming network it's on than to choose one based on which broadcast network is offering it. Ditto for movie studios and book publishers.

Reality check: Apple is touting privacy and security as differentiators for all its offerings. Each of its product intros ritually promised not to sell users' personal information, and each pledge evoked cheers from the crowd in Cupertino.

  • Privacy controversies for Facebook and other online giants have raised public concern, leaving Apple an opening.
  • But there's little evidence so far that entertainment consumers will make choices based on privacy concerns.

Other catches:

  • In the Jobs era, Apple made a point of not announcing products till they were ready to ship. But many of the media offerings unveiled yesterday lacked basic details on pricing, timing, and lineup — and won't be available for months.
  • Apple's new "services" focus will rise and fall on the ability of the company's developers and designers to write great, reliable software. In recent years, Apple's hardware designs have continued to dazzle while its software has often languished.
  • Apple's phones and computers are premium brands for which people pay premium prices. But the world of services is one of monthly fees that get sliced into slivers by multiple stakeholders.

The bottom line: Apple's "services" pivot is already making the company fresh billions, and it will likely make more over time. But it also risks bringing Apple's lofty brand down to earth.

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