Apple’s latest attempt to crack digital TV arrived Monday in the form of a name change most consumers might not even notice. It’s simply called TV, and the new app replaced Apple’s Videos app with the release of iOS 10.2. It’s a neat addition for the iPhone and iPad, but it’s designed to shine on the Apple TV, where the app is supposed to hijack the interfaces and libraries of nearly every content provider available to offer a central location for all your TV needs. By opening TV, you can search for any show or movie, sync your many video accounts, and let Apple override the clumsy and disparate designs served up by other media companies.
But there’s a big problem. The TV app is neither what Apple really wants to deliver nor is it even a remotely suitable stopgap until the company can realize its vision for the future. Apple doesn’t have the support of Netflix or Amazon Video. The company’s single sign-on feature, which is designed to make it easier to use a cable subscription to sign into individual channel apps, only works with a handful of providers, excluding huge names like Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon FiOS. If Apple got its way, the TV app could be capable of upending the industry. Instead, it’s a reminder of how hamstrung technology companies are when trying to bridge the gap between our current app-centric world and a digital media future that’s deliberately kept out of reach by cable companies.
How we consume television is still undergoing rapid change — and it’s getting more complicated instead of simpler. As it stands today, consumers have shifted from cable, or never having cable in the first place, to a hodgepodge of different apps delivered over a dizzying number of hardware solutions. Perhaps you fire up the Netflix app on your smart TV, switch over to your Xbox One for HBO Go, or use the voice search function on your Amazon Fire TV to see if you can purchase the new episode of a show you watch that’s still gated behind cable. If you want a cable alternative, then you subscribe to AT&T’s DirecTV Now, Dish’s Sling TV, or Sony’s PlayStation Vue, which all exist as yet another app to download.
Apple’s new TV app is supposed to solve all that complexity by unifying all these fragmented services into a single, searchable system. It even gets mapped to the TV button on the Apple TV remote. But because it lacks real support from the most important players in the industry, it’s just another voice in the TV app cacophony.
Worse yet for Apple, it does not operate a streaming video service of its own and makes a set-top box that does nothing its competitors don’t already do, besides the robust games section of the App Store. It’s not for lack of trying. Apple has notoriously spent years trying to gain relevance in digital media, investing resources and countless failed software and hardware attempts to wrestle control away from content providers so it could offer its own solution. The TV app is just the latest potentially doomed attempt. That’s largely because it takes stellar ideas about how we should consume entertainment and smashes them against the immovable object that is the current video landscape.
This is a large source of pain for Apple. Nowhere is the iPhone maker less relevant — and yet so hungry to be in control — than TV. The company once dominated digital media by using iTunes and the explosive popularity of the iPod to control everything from how music was bundled and played to how television shows and movies were digitized and distributed online. But there’s no way cable networks are going to cede that much control to Apple in the new world of prestige TV, and there’s no way that the the Apple TV will ever give the company enough leverage to force a change like iTunes and the iPod did.
In the transition from CDs to downloads, Apple led the way and was always two steps ahead of its competitors. In the new streaming media world, Apple always seems like it’s two steps behind. iTunes, once a centerpiece of our media libraries, is now either ignored or openly disliked. And Amazon has popped up as a more capable replacement for movie and TV show rentals. Sling, Sony, and AT&T have figured out ways to release “skinny bundles” of TV channels over the internet.
You could write books on Apple’s multitude of missteps in TV, but fundamentally the company’s loss of influence traces back to missing the boat on streaming combined with an inability to gain any sort of real leverage over traditional video providers. Those companies have been able to forestall and deflect a fate similar to the one that befell the music industry in the heyday of iTunes, and that is unlikely to change in the near-term.
There is hope for Apple yet. The company is arguably the only player in a position to offer a democratic, holistic viewing experience that ties everything to a single source. Amazon, the company perhaps closest to that goal, makes both hardware and software. That means it tends to promote its own products over competitors’. Cable companies, too, are self-interested and prone to resisting change that could hurt their businesses. That means the products those companies produce, whether on-demand apps or live TV, are often ugly, hard to use, and rarely if ever play nice with others.
Apple could craft the ideal solution. It may not be the holy grail at first. But over time, it could take shape as a single iTunes-shaped app and streaming service that syncs with every provider. And if Apple could begin amassing a critical mass of users, it may gain the bargaining power to cut the live TV deals it’s always wanted — something like Sling or PlayStation Vue, except at a lower price and with an easy-to-use interface. Apple’s motivation here would be clear. By ensuring that this service only worked at its optimal level on the iPhone, iPad, and Apple TV, the company could again incentivize consumers to use only its software, instead of treat its devices as expensive screens for displaying video from elsewhere.
The TV app is the hollowed-out husk of that vision, waiting to fulfill its true potential. But Apple needs to convince streaming services like Netflix and Amazon to share their data and channel owners like CBS and NBC would need to compromise on the creation of an unprecedented digital TV bundle that could compete with cable. And the new TV app doesn’t not look like a must-use app that will give Apple enough power to force those companies to play ball in the way the iPod / iTunes combo brought the music industry to heel.
Apple’s most immediate fix is bringing Netflix and Amazon on board. Without those two companies and the data behind their extensive video libraries, Apple’s TV app remains broken. For instance, you can use the TV app’s universal search function to find a Netflix show like House of Cards, and you can even then pop over to Netflix to watch it. But you can’t sync your Netflix account with the TV app. That means your viewing habits and past behavior don’t get incorporated into the “Watch Now” panel.
This is important. Because when you think about it, most people would rather have what they want to watch surfaced easily before them then migrate to a search bar, type in the name of the show, and then click a link to a separate app. The amount of effort required to use the search function in Apple’s TV app in lieu of firing up Netflix makes it unlikely everyday consumers will change their habits. If Apple can’t convince viewers to migrate out of third-party apps, its software will be nothing more than a glorified TV guide that’s used sparingly or not at all.
The other option for Apple is to just give up on this aggregation app model and simply launch its own, proper streaming TV service.
Sony, Dish Network, and now AT&T have all stepped in to offer their own take on the cable alternative in the form of a skinny bundle that starts around $20 a month and scales up to nearly four times that, when you toss in sports and other add-ons. These are imperfect solutions, grounded in acquiescing to content providers’ more forceful licensing demands. They also give consumers only a slightly less frustrating way to watch cable without installing a box in their home and paying for channels they won’t watch.
The interfaces of these apps are messy, and there are significant restrictions in how live TV can be viewed in certain regions and on mobile devices. DirecTV Now, which AT&T launched late last month, hasn’t been able to convince CBS to come on board. That means it offers a pay-TV service that doesn’t have some of the most popular programming in the country.
Apple’s efforts in this area have been even less successful. According to an in-depth report from The Wall Street Journal in July, Apple tried and failed to strong-arm its way into lucrative licensing deals that would have allowed the company to offer a digital TV service unlike any we’ve ever seen. It did so by relying on the tactics perfected by execs like Eddy Cue and wielded years ago when Apple first began hammering out licensing deals with record labels.
According to the WSJ, Apple’s top negotiators tried demanding a multi-year freeze on monthly rate per viewer fees, liberal use of ad-skipping and cloud DVR technology, and wider access to global rights for streaming outside the US and locate affiliate deals for providing regional programming. Apple also refused to show content providers its proposed interface, saying simply that it would be “better than anything you’ve ever had.” The negotiations, which took place from around 2009 to 2014, fell through.
It turns out that TV, unlike music more than 15 years ago, is still not in a place where Apple can alter the industry on its own terms. In the meantime, we’ll continue to use imperfect solutions to the problems that keep streaming services from replacing cable. If Apple somehow figures out how to convince companies desperate to maintain profits and preserve relevance to take a chance on the future, it could turn its TV app into what it was meant to be.
But right now, the only difference between Apple’s position today and where it was a year ago is its new glorified TV guide, one consumers will wish was more capable and forward-thinking than the cable companies will let it be.