How a Former Amazon and Roku Star Could Revive Apple TV
Why isn’t Apple king of the living room? The computer maker expanded expertly from Macs to iPods to iPhones over the past two decades, dragging along almost the entire entertainment industry into its vast and growing digital ecosystem. But somehow, the Apple TV remains an also-ran—and a market share losing also-ran at that.
Left without an update in 2016, the still-sexy-looking black set-top box grabbed just 12% of the Internet-connected TV market, lower than in 2015 and trailing both Google’s Chromecast and Roku, according to eMarketer. Parks Associates, another market tracker, put Apple fourth, behind also Amazon’s Fire TV line. Apple did update the box’s software before the holidays. But its focal point, a new app called TV, seemed to confuse more than entice.
Even Apple CEO Tim Cook seems reluctant to focus on Apple TV. In his lengthy introductory remarks on Apple’s most recent earnings call, Cook took time to mention how great things were going with the iPhone 7, Mac and MacBook computers, the Apple Watch, Apple’s HomeKit and CarPlay programs, relationships with software developers and enterprise customers and services Apple Pay, Apple Music, and iCloud storage. Even Apple’s new wireless earphones, the AirPods, got a lengthy call out from the boss.
But Apple TV? Nary a mention.
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Asked about TV by one of the analysts, Cook sounded like he was looking for a big media acquisition to save the day.
This week, however, came news suggesting that while it still may be on Cook’s naughty list, the Apple TV project has not been abandoned by Apple. Bloomberg reported that Apple had snared Timothy Twerdahl, former head of Amazon’s Fire TV business, to be vice president overseeing Apple TV product marketing.
An Apple spokeswoman said Twerdahl wasn’t available for an interview.
Twerdahl spent nearly four years at Amazon and earlier worked for Palm, Roku, and Motorola. He also had a short stint at Netflix. He got his start, according to his LinkedIn profile, in the marketing department at Time Inc., parent of Fortune, where he worked on an early version of Entertainment Weekly‘s Internet offerings.
Named on numerous patents related to consumer hardware and online TV, Twerdahl has helped develop pioneering products in both areas. He was hired by Netflix in 2007 to help create an Internet-connected Netflix player device. But it became increasingly clear that such a box would be far more attractive if it was open to multiple services—and Netflix (NFLX) started having success on its own getting onto other devices like Microsoft’s (MSFT) Xbox and Tivo (TIVO). So the group was spun out to Roku.
Twerdahl has also long emphasized a focus on customers: what they need, what they want, what they don’t want. At Roku, he used to spend an hour a week listening in on customer support calls to hear exactly how the product was going over and what areas might need improvements.
“We really focused on making it drop dead easy to use,” he told one interviewer after the Roku box was first introduced. “Very few folks are focused on that right now as I look at the competitive landscape.”
At a time when other players, like Apple, were building large amounts of storage into Internet video players, Roku included none. “We don’t believe in disk drives,” he told another interviewer at the time. “They fail, they’re noisy, and people don’t want them in their living room.” The cloud was the future, he accurately foresaw.
After the success at Roku, Twerdahl worked on Amazon’s TV project. Introduced less than three years ago, the Fire line has sold well for Amazon (AMZN), though the company doesn’t release actual sales numbers. (To be fair, neither does Apple (AAPL), Roku, or any other Internet set-top box maker.)
Now Twerdahl’s extreme customer focus is exactly what Apple needs. Competitors have greatly expanded the market by offering inexpensive video dongles like Amazon’s $40 Fire stick and Google’s (GOOGL) $35 Chromecast. Meanwhile, Apple was raising the price of Apple TV—but without adding high-end features, like 4K compatibility, which others included.
The recent software update over-promised and under-delivered with its focus on the new “TV” app that could search and display content from some services but not others. That kind of inconsistency creates disappointment among users that’s the opposite of Apple’s brand image.
To get Apple TV back on track, Twerdahl clearly has his work cut out for him. But his track record demonstrates he’s up for the challenge.