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tvOS at 6 Months: Where Are the Apps?

by Josh Centers

When Apple announced the fourth-generation Apple TV last September, I gave an audible (and embarrassing) “Whoop!” as I watched the presentation, eager to write the second edition of “Take Control of Apple TV [1]” (which is now available). The little set-top box that could suddenly had a lot more potential, thanks to Apple finally adding an App Store (see “The Fourth-Generation Apple TV Is Coming at Last [2],” 9 September 2015).

But it has been nearly six months since the fourth-generation Apple TV was released, and there isn’t much to show yet. Yes, the tvOS App Store quickly added over 1000 apps, but growth since that initial explosion seems slow. I dutifully check the “Best New Apps” section every week, only to be disappointed by the slow trickle of interesting new apps.

The problem isn’t a complete lack of apps (there were over 2600 back in December, and likely many more than that now), but a dearth of those that make the Apple TV compelling (see “Apple TV App Store Growing Quickly… In the Wrong Direction? [3],” 11 December 2015). Just about every cable channel that offers a provider-activated streaming app has an entry in the tvOS App Store. But highly anticipated apps such as Amazon Video, Sling TV, and Spotify are nowhere to be found.

Probably the number one question I receive from readers of “Take Control of Apple TV, Second Edition [4]” is: where is the Amazon Video app? In “Amazon Instant Video Coming to Apple TV [5]” (30 November 2015), we reported that Amazon had told engineer Dan Bostonweeks that it was indeed working on an Apple TV app, but it still hasn’t surfaced. I asked Amazon PR about the Apple TV app but never heard back.

It’s tough to say what exactly is going on with Amazon in regards to the Apple TV. Apple has openly stated that Amazon is more than welcome to develop for the Apple TV [6], and Amazon has apps in the iOS App Store, so I doubt the trouble is on Apple’s end. On the other hand, Amazon has been attempting to strong-arm Apple by banning the Apple TV from its online store (see “Amazon to Stop Selling Apple TV and Google’s Chromecast [7],” 2 October 2015). Amazon also purchased successful comic book retailer ComiXology, stripped in-app purchases out of the iOS app, and hasn’t done much with the company since (see “Explaining the ComiXology In-app Purchase Debacle [8],” 3 May 2014).

Since Amazon isn’t talking, and readers demand answers, I’m left to speculate. I figure the main issue is Apple’s refusal to let Amazon sell ebooks and other media via its apps without giving Apple a 30 percent cut. That’s also the conclusion of Steve Kovach at Tech Insider [9] and Jeff Byrnes at AppAdvice [10]. I bet that there is already an Amazon Video app for the Apple TV that Amazon is using as a bargaining chip while negotiating with Apple.

iOS is already a powerhouse platform, so Amazon doesn’t have much choice but to support it. But with a budding platform like tvOS, Amazon has a powerful negotiation tool with its popular Prime Instant Video service, in which it’s investing heavily [11].

As for other expected apps, I contacted Sling TV’s PR group to ask about an Apple TV app, but the only response I received was “We haven’t announced any new devices, but I’m happy to add you to our media list if you’re interested in keeping up to date on all Sling TV news.” Again, the absence of Sling TV is odd, since it’s available on Apple’s other devices. I contacted Spotify PR as well but never heard back. Spotify’s absence is even stranger than Sling’s, since Spotify is almost as ubiquitous as Netflix on streaming media devices. All I can think is that Spotify is unhappy about competing with Apple Music.

With large companies being close-mouthed, I decided to talk to independent developers to get their take on developing for Apple TV.

Developer Matt Braun emailed me first to tell me about the upcoming version of SketchParty TV [12]. He had been working on SketchParty TV for the Apple TV years before the Apple TV even had an App Store, so I was keen to hear his take on how things were going. Unfortunately, it wasn’t all good news. He told me that after four years of meager returns on SketchParty TV, he nearly threw in the towel, deciding to carry on only after being invited to show off SketchParty TV at a private Apple event.

When I asked Braun if he had seen any improvement in sales since the release of the fourth-generation Apple TV, he replied, “I’ve definitely seen an uptick in sales, but my understanding is that I’m an exception. I think it’s because I’ve been building the SketchParty TV brand for so long that it has a small but growing fan base.”

I also asked developer Marco Arment if he’s planning to port his podcast player, Overcast, to the Apple TV (see “Overcast Refines the iPhone Podcast Experience [13],” 16 July 2014). He replied, “I’m not saying ‘never,’ but it’s not something I’m planning to work on in the near future. There just isn’t a lot of demand for an audio-only podcast player on such a young TV box yet. I’ve had far more requests for more audio-focused systems like Amazon Echo, Sonos, and Chromecast Audio than I’ve gotten for Apple TV to date, but I wouldn’t rule it out in the future if that changes.”

Of course, focusing an audio-based app toward audio-based systems is entirely sensible. And Overcast users can always AirPlay its audio to their Apple TVs, making a native app non-essential. But that’s still disappointing news for cheerleaders of the platform.

Overall, developer reaction to the new Apple TV was mixed. One developer who asked to remain anonymous said that porting to the Apple TV hadn’t been worth the time. However, Michael Krach of Deep Silver FISHLABS, developer of Galaxy on Fire — Manticore RISING (which I covered in “FunBITS: Testing the Siri Remote as a Game Controller [14],” 20 November 2015), said:

Manticore RISING plays like a charm and the eyeballs we got as a “day 1” supplier of a fledging platform were invaluable. The app remained in the paid charts of the Apple TV for weeks, and many reviewers named it a game that showed the huge potential that lay in the new hardware. On top, the buzz we got from the Manticore RISING release also had a positive impact on our other titles for iPhone and iPad. In the wake of Manticore RISING’s Apple TV release, they got increased visibility on the App Store and in the media as well.

It sounds like Manticore RISING was a big hit for Deep Silver FISHLABS, and Krach indicated interest in future Apple TV titles. But it’s important to note the level of promotion Manticore RISING enjoyed from Apple, both in Apple TV promotional materials and on the App Store. It was a hard game to miss!

Elsewhere, Apple TV gaming seems to be struggling. Disney recently announced that it’s already dropping support for its Apple TV version of Disney Infinity, saying in a forum post [15], “The team is currently focusing on the traditional gaming platforms. We are always evaluating and making changes, but there are currently no plans for further updates to the Apple TV version of the game.” That’s disturbing news for anyone who shelled out $99.95 for the Disney Infinity 3.0 Edition Starter Pack [16] from the Apple Store, which is still on sale! Given that Apple also sells many of the accompanying Disney Infinity action figures, Disney’s abandonment of this app has to be a blow to the Apple TV team.

Even if an app you want arrives on the Apple TV, and stays around, there’s no guarantee that it will work. Take the recently released Starz [17] app, which lets you watch Starz content in one of two ways: by activating with a participating cable provider or by subscribing directly from Starz for a monthly fee. Comcast is refusing to let the activation portion work with its TV service [18], angering many Comcast customers. Chris Welch of The Verge theorizes that Comcast is upset that the app combines both cable activation and a subscription service, unlike HBO and Showtime’s apps, which split those functions into separate apps. Either way, it’s a major annoyance for customers.

It’s not just the Starz app that has this problem. Comcast doesn’t support many cable-activated Apple TV apps, most notably those from AMC and Viacom, the latter including apps like Comedy Central, MTV, and VH1. But to be fair, this isn’t just an Apple TV problem. I can activate HBO GO on my Apple TV, but not my Fire TV or PlayStation 4.

A Murky Future for TV -- When he introduced the fourth-generation Apple TV, Tim Cook proclaimed that the future of TV is apps. That’s an entirely sensible position, but as we can see, political issues that weren’t present for the iPhone are hampering Cook’s predicted future.

So what are the factors holding back the Apple TV? Here are a few.

That’s if you’re a small fish. If you’re a big developer, you have to worry about Apple competing with your core business! Why should Spotify help boost the new Apple TV with an app when Apple is hoping to drive them out of business with Apple Music? If you’re a content provider, why support the Apple TV, when Apple is likely going to compete against you soon? If you’re a cable company, why help Apple replace your precious 1980s-vintage cable boxes? (Though the FCC may not give you much choice [36].)

I’m afraid the fourth-generation Apple TV has entered the dreaded “chicken or egg” zone, something I’ve seen countless times with living room devices, mainly video game consoles. Software moves hardware, and if the apps aren’t there, people won’t buy the boxes. And if hardware sales are slow, developers won’t build software for the platform. It’s a vicious cycle, but I think Apple is better equipped to break free of it than most.

Developers, Developers, Developers! -- The tech community had a good laugh at former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s chant [37] of “DEVELOPERS, DEVELOPERS, DEVELOPERS,” but he was right! A platform is nothing unless developers are making interesting apps for it. Unfortunately, while he identified the issue, it was Apple that was better able to attract those developers.

But Apple has taken those developers for granted, punishing them with vague and onerous rules, devaluing their work, complicating the product lineup, and even taking over their ideas.

Most trace Apple’s current stature back to the launch of the iPhone, but I would point rather to the now-famous slogan, “There’s an app for that [38]” that debuted with the iPhone 3G. Sure, some Apple die-hards wanted the iPhone for the innovative touch screen and other technologies, but what convinced the masses to drop serious coin on iPhones and data plans was the universe of apps inside the App Store. Ultimately, it’s third-party developers that make or break a platform.

I would go so far as to blame many of Apple’s current woes on deflated and depressed developers. The once-promising Mac App Store is now a wasteland thanks to Apple’s overbearing requirements, such as sandboxing, which is unworkable for many popular apps. If the Apple Watch is indeed a dud, it’s because it has few interesting apps to sell the platform. If people are bored with their iPhones and iPads, it’s because the once-endless stream of exciting new apps has slowed to a trickle.

That brings me back to the Apple TV. If developers were producing killer apps for it, it would sell, regardless of the price, the weird remote, and whether or not big companies wanted to play along. And after a certain point, those companies wouldn’t have a choice but to support the Apple TV. But we’re not even seeing improvements to those apps I found most compelling early on (see “Apps that Reveal the Apple TV’s Potential [39],” 9 November 2015). Why don’t Zillow and Airbnb let you pan around a map of locations (a capability introduced in tvOS 9.2), and why can’t the Fidelity app let you customize its widgets? Are these apps moribund?

With Apple’s revenue dropping for the first time in well over a decade (see “In Q2 2016, Apple Sees First Revenue Decline in 13 Years [40],” 26 April 2016), we’re seeing an endless stream of pundits offering advice for the company. But rather than build cars, ship cheaper iPhones, or give more money to shareholders, my simple advice would be to announce App Store policy changes at this year’s Worldwide Developer Conference to reinvigorate the developer community. If developers saw Apple as a partner facilitating their business goals, rather than as a dour gatekeeper, we might see a flowering of apps for all of Apple’s platforms, including the Apple TV. And that, in turn, would get Apple’s customers excited again.