Right now, Apple TV+ is mostly an interesting idea. And to be honest, it's interesting only because it's Apple. It's hard to imagine that anyone is begging for one more streaming service to sign up for, but Apple has proved it is able to marry its products and services in a way that makes this one worth at least looking at. 

The biggest problem for Apple, of course, is that with so much competition, it's hard to see why anyone would sign up for TV+, especially considering how little content the service will launch with on November 1. Don't get me wrong--what we've seen so far looks amazing, but who signs up to pay for something that offers only a handful of shows?

A brilliant strategy.

That's why Apple's offer, announced yesterday, to give it to everyone who buys a new iPhone, iPad, or Mac is so brilliant. Look, the company doesn't need a streaming service to make money today, even though it did spend a reported $6 billion on original content. Apple can afford to play the long game, which is what makes it a real threat to Netflix.  

To win the streaming war, you need two things: content and an audience. As it turns out, one usually leads to the other. If you have content people want to watch, they'll sign up for your service--at least long enough to watch the content they love. If you have no content that anyone cares about, you can forget about an audience.

Right now, Apple has neither. Netflix and Hulu, on the other hand, have a huge head start. Even Disney and HBO have familiar content that already includes a built-in audience for their respective additions to the streaming wars. But Apple? Apple has iPhone users. A lot of them. And it's using it's biggest asset (those users) as its best weapon.

Make it painless to sign up.

It's pretty common for subscription services to offer a free trial for the first month. The goal is to get you hooked and hope you stick around. The problem for Apple is that after the first month, there will still be only a handful of shows on the service. But after a year? If Apple can't get the thing up and running after a year, it doesn't deserve to exist. 

And Apple has mastered making it easy to sign up for services right from your device, meaning that it shouldn't have any problem convincing people to take advantage of the free year. I don't think that the offer is likely to drive anyone to go out and buy an iPhone 11, or new MacBook Pro, but I do think a lot of those users are likely to take advantage of the free year.

Apple will probably sell 65 million to 75 million iPhones in just the holiday quarter alone. It's doubtful that everyone who buys one will sign up for Apple TV+, but that's just iPhones. And let's say that half of them take Apple up on the offer of a free year. Those 37 million subscribers would make Apple TV+ the second-largest streaming service, with almost 36 percent more subscribers than Hulu's 28 million.  

Make it worth it to stick around.

Then, the question is whether Apple can deliver in a way that convinces those new subscribers that it's worth it. Based on the trailers we've seen so far, there's no doubt that Apple spent that $6 billion on high-production-value content from some of the best creative minds in the industry. That doesn't guarantee it'll be good, but on this front, I'm willing to give Apple the chance to make its case. It doesn't usually make bad stuff (except iTunes). 

But things will look very different a year from now. Between now and then, the company will have to prove it can produce the kind of content people actually want to watch. It's given itself time to ...

Make it painful to let go.

And if Apple does have those hits, it'll be much easier for people to simply continue their subscription at $4.99 a month, which is half the price of Netflix, and a little less than Disney+. That could make it very painful to cancel for those who grow to love The Morning Show, Dickinson, See, or For All Mankind.

This doesn't, by the way, mean a company should make it actually complicated or difficult to cancel. It means a company should make people feel what they'll be missing if they do cancel. If you offer something for free, hoping people will get hooked, then you better get them hooked. If Apple can do that, it'll have a real chance to beat Netflix.

Published on: Sep 11, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.