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Apple’s ‘hobby’ could own 1/3 of streaming set-top market in 2011

By the end of this year, the streaming set-top box market will reach about 12 million units worldwide, according to a survey published Monday. And the company known mainly for phones, tablets and computers is set to own a third of that, according to Strategy Analytics. It says Apple’s(s AAPL) small $99 streaming Apple TV is on pace to hit 4 million units by the end of this year.

For perspective, four million devices is what the iPhone 4S sold in a weekend. But Apple has somehow managed to reach this number in Apple TV without really trying. And by “trying,” I mean doing things like running TV and billboard advertisements or making it the centerpiece of press events. Apple has for years, since its introduction, excused Apple TV as merely “a hobby.” And while it has played with the concept and design and the price, the company doesn’t talk much about it or how many it’s sold. Breaking with tradition, Steve Jobs did say in October 2010 that after a month on sale, the new $99 Apple TV had sold 250,000 units.

Earlier this year, Strategy Analytics surveyed more than 4,000 consumers in the U.S. and Europe and found the connected set-top box category has doubled in size in the last year:

“The lower price points of the second generation Apple TV and Roku Box have made them more affordable and compelling to consumers. More than 8 percent of US households now own a connected TV player, compared to 7 percent of European households.”

It’s notable that SA didn’t break out numbers for Roku, Boxee or others in this market, so we don’t know how well Apple is doing relative to its competitors. But again, this is a product category Apple has been very quiet about, so it’s interesting to see how it’s being adopted by consumers.

However, the chatter has been increasing in the few months since it was reported in Jobs’ biography that not only was Jobs actively working on a next-gen connected television, but he had “cracked” the problem of building a good interface.

If Apple does make a full-fledged television, it’s unclear whether it would keep the $99 set-top box Apple TV as well, or if it would be too much of a distraction for the company trying to point customers toward a much pricier large-screen TV.

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