Don’t judge Apple’s TV prospects by smart TV demand

Apple’s (s aapl) television plans were outlined in somewhat greater detail in a report by the Wall Street Journal (s nws) on Sunday. All those plans might be for naught, however, according to Macworld UK, which sees lackluster demand for connected TVs as a major stumbling block. But if Apple has proven anything, it’s that what customers think they want and what will later sell in huge numbers aren’t always the same thing.

Smart TVs slow to catch on

According to YouGov, a prominent U.K.-based research firm, only one in 10 U.K. adults currently own a TV with smart features, and only 15 percent plan to buy one in the next year. A smart TV is one with Internet access, and with connected features such as apps or media delivery services. It’s understandable then, that Macworld would suggest a TV from Apple “would struggle in this tough market with such low demands for the technology,” but I think it ultimately misses the mark.

Don’t respond to demand: create it

Apple is a company that creates products that never would have made it to market if its process relied on focus groups and too much temperature-taking of the current consumer climate. The iPad is a perfect example, and one that was likewise greeted with ample skepticism prior to and immediately following its introduction. The failure of smart TVs to light a blazing fire in consumer hearts likely isn’t seen as a problem by Apple’s engineers and design team, but instead an opportunity to succeed where others have mostly failed.

A unique approach

In launching a TV, whether it’s an improved version of its set-top box or an actual television complete with built-in display, Apple will be competing with a number of seasoned veterans, including Sony, (s sne) Samsung and LG, all of which already have smart TV offerings on the market and big plans down the road, and Microsoft(s msft), which is building out its Xbox and Kinect TV chops. But Apple’s approach is unique, in that it already owns and successfully manages a massive digital content distribution system. The iTunes ecosystem is thriving and with the current Apple TV, has gradually been tweaked to be more appealing in a living room setting, through additions like streaming of purchased shows.

Additions like auto-detection and resuming of iTunes content playback across devices, Siri controls, iCloud and AirPlay integration are all elements Apple alone can leverage from its mobile efforts to give it an advantage in the television space. Because of these key differences, any offering from Apple would be considerably different from what current and future smart TVs from competitors include. The demand for the latter types of devices likely has little in common with demand for the former, as a result.

Going pro

Apple likely won’t bring a new TV to market it could quietly dismiss with the “hobby” moniker as it does with the current set-top box. That Apple TV hardware is doing well, with a projected one-third take of the streaming set-top market, but as far as markets go, it’s not a huge one. If Apple wants a bigger piece of the home entertainment pie, it won’t just evolve the market; it’ll shake it up completely.

Think about the difference between the original MacBook Air and the refresh that brought the 11-inch form factor and much cheaper price tag. I think we’ll see a similar evolution take place with the Apple TV, with steps taken to ensure it goes from being a unique, fringe device for the Apple faithful to something everyone wants to take home.