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What’s Coming in tvOS 11

Speaking as the author of “Take Control of Apple TV,” I was excited when Apple kicked off its 2017 WWDC keynote with news about the Apple TV. I was even more excited when Tim Cook confirmed that Amazon Prime Video is coming to the Apple TV (see “Apple TV to Get Amazon Prime Video and More Later in 2017,” 5 June 2017). And then… nothing else, other than a brief mention that more would be announced later this year.

It’s unclear why Apple chose to say so little, since tvOS 11 is indeed coming, presumably alongside the company’s other operating system updates, and the beta is available for Apple developers now.

But don’t get too excited. tvOS 11, at least what Apple has revealed thus far, is a supremely disappointing update. Highlights from the beta include:

  • Automatic switching between dark and light modes.

  • Home screen sync, which can sync your Home screen between multiple Apple TVs. Since not many people own multiple Apple TVs, I’m taking this as a hint of a new model on the way.

  • Right-to-left language support.

  • Background app refresh, which is nice, but should have already been there. iOS has had it since iOS 7.

  • AirPods will automatically pair to your Apple TV over iCloud, as happens on other Apple devices.

In addition to those, Apple has confirmed that the fourth-generation Apple TV will act as an AirPlay 2 receiver, and popular streaming service Vudu is working on an app for the Apple TV.

Most of the rest of the improvements are for developers, and even those aren’t terribly interesting. I’ve been to funerals that were more upbeat than the “What’s New in tvOS” session at this year’s WWDC.

What gives? One possibility is that the fourth-generation Apple TV is a dud and Apple has put it on the back burner. Reports on the Apple TV’s weak sales figures support this theory.

To be more optimistic, Apple may have more real improvements planned for the Apple TV later this year. That could mean a fifth-generation Apple TV is on the way, perhaps with 4K resolution support and other goodies. And I’m wondering if there will be interesting connections between the Apple TV and Apple’s upcoming HomePod speaker (see “Apple Will Enter Smart Speaker Market in December with HomePod,” 5 June 2017).

Even without new hardware, there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit that could be addressed in tvOS for the existing fourth-generation Apple TV.

What the Apple TV Needs -- It’s frustrating being an Apple TV fan. The device has so much potential, but Apple doesn’t seem interested in tapping into it. Here are five areas in which Apple could improve the Apple TV in real ways without much difficulty:

  • Where is picture-in-picture? It’s such an obvious feature for a TV device, and it has been available for the iPad since iOS 9. Don’t tell me the Apple TV’s A8 processor lacks sufficient power — my iPad Air with an A7 chip handles it just fine with 50 percent more pixels.

  • tvOS needs a new multitasking view. Flipping between apps one at a time is painful and a total waste of a TV screen. If a 10.5-inch iPad will be able to use the entire screen to view open apps in iOS 11 (see “iPad Pro Gets More Professional,” 5 June 2017), it’s absurd for tvOS users to be stuck flipping cards.

  • Why doesn’t tvOS support user profiles? Sure, you can switch between Apple IDs in Settings, but with the TV app now (theoretically) being the Apple TV’s front end, families need better ways to separate their watch lists and recommended titles. Netflix and Hulu both offer unique user profiles on the same account, so there’s no reason Apple couldn’t provide something similar.

  • Where are core Apple apps for tvOS? The News app in iOS supports video content, so a tweaked version of it would be a natural fit for the Apple TV. And how about a Home app for tvOS, since Siri on tvOS already lets you control HomeKit devices?

  • Speaking of HomeKit, I wish the Apple TV could work as a HomeKit Accessory. Since the Apple TV can control my TV over HDMI-CEC, I could set HomeKit Scenes that would turn my TV on automatically. Alternatively, I could set up HomeKit Automations to perform or prevent actions when my TV is on; for instance, to keep the dehumidifier powered off while we’re watching TV (for details on how I currently automate the dehumidifier in our TV room, see “A Prairie HomeKit Companion: The Elgato Eve Room,” 19 June 2017).

The sad part is that this list is easy stuff. It doesn’t suggest anything that would turn the Apple TV into the next-generation media device we’ve been waiting on for years. My pal Joe Rosensteel, a Hollywood visual effects artist, maintains a running Apple TV wish list with additional ideas, including an interactive programming guide for live TV and support for Siri showing results on the Apple TV’s attached screen.

Other Challenges Facing the Apple TV -- With these suggestions, I’m not even approaching the issue of content deals, which are really what the Apple TV needs to put it over the top. In fairness to Apple, such deals are hard to negotiate. However, I do wish Apple would do whatever it takes to get Netflix on board with the TV app — Citigroup analyst Jim Suva suggests that an acquisition isn’t out of the question, though I’m not a fan of the idea.

Nor do I want to delve too far into concerns surrounding the hardware, which has its share of faults. The Siri Remote is universally despised for being too thin and slippery. Even after being on the market for years, the Apple TV is the most expensive streaming box in its class, despite lacking support for 4K content. Even now, it starts at $149, while 4K-capable boxes like the Amazon Fire TV and Roku 4 are only about $90.

It probably says a lot that every time I write anything about the Apple TV, at least one reader asks about the third-generation model from 2012. I’m sure the relatively high price is probably a factor in why people aren’t upgrading, which has a chilling effect on the entire ecosystem. I know several developers who invested early in tvOS and got burned — since there aren’t that many users, there isn’t much money to be made (see “tvOS at 6 Months: Where Are the Apps?,” 4 May 2016).

Meanwhile, all these video-streaming boxes are facing competition from TV sets themselves. Almost any TV you buy these days will be “smart,” whether or not you want it to be, and it will offer good-enough access to most of the streaming services people want, like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, HBO, and Hulu.

It’s an exaggeration to say the Apple TV is in a death spiral, but it’s still a niche product, and Apple hasn’t figured out how to break out of the niche. Apps haven’t been sufficient so far, but more robust gaming might be the ticket. Sony’s PlayStation 4 has sold nearly 60 million units since its launch in November 2013, showing that there is a market for an entertainment box in the living room, even at a premium price. But Apple would need to change gears in a big way to tap that market.

In the meantime, Apple TV fans, I will sit in frustration with you, waiting and watching to see what Apple ships later this year.


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Comments about What’s Coming in tvOS 11
(Comments are closed.)

Kris Arnold  2017-06-15 21:40
Are you sure view the “What’s New in tvOS” talk from WWDC requires a paid developer login? It plays fine for me when I'm not logged in at all.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2017-06-16 10:57
Oh, cool! You used to have to have a paid developer account to view those session videos.
Tom Gewecke  2017-06-16 11:15
The RTL language support is interesting, mainly for how it took them 10 years longer to include it in the Apple TV than in everything else they make.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2017-06-19 09:35
Michael Paine  2017-06-18 02:29
LIve TV - I have been following discussions about an EyeTV app for ATV:
This is very frustrating. I had EyeTV integrated into Front Row on my iMac many years ago. Then Apple pulled Front Row and I decided to use an Apple TV for a media center. Since We dont have a TV in our house I have to switch HDMI input to the iMac to watch live (free to,air) TV - grrr
jschenck  2017-06-19 20:28
I've been an Apple TV fan since the start. It works for me but I agree that your section on easy wins is frustrating. Would like the Apple News section available on Apple TV, etc.
Anonymous  2017-06-19 21:54
Perhaps the reason for Apple's neglect is that they can't find a profitable business reason to continue. Why else would they neglect the obvious 'low hanging fruit' you list?
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2017-06-20 11:16
Despite the company's size, Apple often seems to lose track of some products for a period of time, only to refocus on them later. I can't see Apple dropping the Apple TV and tvOS, since it's too useful of a beachhead in a particular part of the average living space, but they still need to give it more focus if it's going to succeed in the long run.
Dennis B. Swaney  2017-07-01 11:11
It has been accelerating this "track loss" since 2011. Apple needs to replace Tim Cook with someone more like Steve Jobs. Also, Jony Ives needs to be restricted to hardware design as he sucks at software design
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2017-06-20 11:35
Dave Mark at The Loop added a couple more great ideas: the capability to pair multiple AirPods to the Apple TV and the option to keep playing audio through the TV speakers while it also streams the audio to a pair of AirPods — for hearing-impaired viewers.
Khürt  2017-06-20 14:11
The audio streaming function of Bluetooth is limited to one audio receiver at a time.

Same limitation affects the second bullet point. This is not a problem Apple can solve alone unless all streams use AirPlay 2. So $200 Apple TV + $700 HomePods for stereo. $900 to watch HD content?

Picture in picture? That was always a useless gimmick and has been removed from modern television. But I guess Apple could offer a "retro" mode.
James C. Segrest  2017-06-20 17:40
Picture in Picture - still a useful and desirable feature in our household, and we would not buy a new TV that didn't have it. Easy to watch a main program (movie?) while monitoring something else (ball game?) and switch the screens to catch the replay on the second program. Yes, I could use an iPad the same way, but line-of-sight to a second device plus a second audio source is less desirable to us. To each his own.....
B. Jefferson Le Blanc  2017-06-26 13:21
The Apple TV has been in a death spiral since it was introduced ten years ago. It has inspired a variety of other streaming devices, but has never been more than the hobby Steve Jobs initially described—as your list of missing features makes clear. If Apple really wanted the Apple TV to be competitive they would sell it at a competitive price, with competitive features. Their notion that the Apple brand can make up for a 33% price premium on an inferior product is belied by anemic sales. But far be it from Apple to let reality get in the way of company ideology and dogma.

Ultimately, as you say, smart TVs threaten the viability of external steaming devices, a subject worthy, IMO, of an article all its own. My six year old Sony TV was smart out of the box, running Android. But the only subscription channel I've ever used on it was Netflix, for which I had a subscription when I bought the TV. The reason: Comcast Cable, which comes with a DVR and now even includes Netflix over the wire, which boasts a cable quality HD picture superior to anything I can get over the Internet, including from Netflix.

The cord cutter's dream is, or will be, a smart TV with all the available streaming channels. It will serve, unless you want a quality HD picture. Which, apparently, they couldn't care less about. Nor do they need a DVR for recording and time-shiftng programs. Not to mention a universal channel guide. Or local channel support, though they might get that from any of a number of modern over-the-air HD broadcast antenna's. Do those actually work?

I could be wrong and Apple may grant your fondest wishes. Christmas would be a good time for them to deliver those gifts. But I don't recommend holding your breath. Though, since you're still breathing, you clearly don't need my snarky advice.

Unless Apple can make some breakthrough content deals, smart TVs prefigure the end of the line for all external streaming devices, including the Apple TV. Which may be the best reason for Apple dragging its feat with ATV development. You don't need Steve Jobs to see the handwriting on that wall.

Perhaps the only reason they are persisting with the Apple TV is that they only recently gave it its own brand name operating system. It's cool to say they have four different operating systems. Then again, that may be one more reason development on the Apple TV has lagged: It's simply not feasible to provide parallel development on all those OSs. Not because Apple lacks the financial resources to do so, but because they simply lack leadership capable of focussing equally on so many product lines. That's not just snark—the proof is in the undercooked pudding.
Dennis B. Swaney  2017-07-01 11:15
Perhaps the reason Apple hasn't added those simple features is because their software engineers are being led by a HARDWARE engineer? Then again, this is a company who says they can't figure out how to merge databases, something that is taught in high school nowadays.