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” (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,” 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?,” 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” is: where is the Amazon Video app? In “Amazon Instant Video Coming to Apple TV” (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, 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,” 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,” 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 and Jeff Byrnes at AppAdvice. 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.
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. 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,” 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,” 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, “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 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 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, 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.
- A Weak Launch: I recently gave a presentation about the Apple TV for the Naples MacFriends User Group. The first question I received was about my initial impressions of the fourth-generation Apple TV, with a clear implication that members weren’t thrilled with the device out of the box.
And indeed, the fourth-generation Apple TV had a shaky launch. In addition to many bugs, it lacked features from the previous Apple TVs, such as Bluetooth keyboard support, the iOS Remote app, and Conference Room Display mode, and it was also missing obvious features like Siri search for apps and music, voice dictation, and iCloud Photo Library support. In addition to that, the App Store was unfinished, lacking basics such as Categories and Top Charts. It didn’t feel like a finished product until the release of tvOS 9.2 (see “With tvOS 9.2, the Fourth-Generation Apple TV Hits 1.0,” 23 March 2016).
After years of anticipation and rumors surrounding this device, the result felt strangely rushed, as if Apple had spent a long time on an entirely different vision and then cobbled together the final product at the last minute. First impressions matter, and I think the launch left a bad taste in people’s mouths.
Apple has addressed most of those issues now, but the Apple TV faces an uphill climb to overcome these early impressions.
- A Poor Remote: The Siri Remote is flawed. It’s expensive, fragile, and worst of all, hard to hold. It’s way too symmetrical, making it clumsy to operate. I addressed these issues in “Wrangling the Siri Remote” (14 April 2016).
To be fair, the Siri Remote is being asked to do the impossible: be both a satisfying home theater remote and a competent gaming controller. Frankly, I don’t think that can be done.
Probably the best remote I’ve ever used is the one bundled with my current Vizio TV. It’s cheap plastic, but it’s comfortable, is just the right size, has just the right number of buttons, and even squeezes a keyboard on the back of the remote without making the entire contraption awkward. But it would make a terrible game controller!
Likewise, the PlayStation 4 controller is my all-time favorite game controller. Despite its funky look, it’s a vast improvement over its predecessors. It’s just the right size and weight, it fits my hand well, and the rear triggers stick out so they’re easy to wrap my fingers around. But those same triggers make controlling media a nightmare! It’s all too easy to bump the controller and send video into fast-forward mode. It doesn’t help that Sony’s button assignments are confusing and unintuitive.
The Apple way is to make one device that can do it all, but the enormous tradeoffs we see with the Siri Remote demonstrate the futility of that goal.
- Price: The new Apple TV is expensive. Granted, it’s not unusual for Apple to have the highest priced product in its class, but there’s usually a clear benefit for the user.
I would argue that the two big benefits of Apple TV are iTunes content and AirPlay, but both of those are available in the $69 third-generation Apple TV. Meanwhile, the fourth-generation Apple TV starts at $149. Will most users see a weak App Store as being worth the extra $80?
Plus, the Roku 4 is available for under $120, with more apps, support for 4K video, and voice search. Amazon’s current Fire TV is $99.99, and includes the superior Alexa voice assistant, 4K support, and most of the same apps and features as the Apple TV. For $139.99, you can get the Fire TV Gaming Edition, which includes a decent game controller, expanded storage, two excellent games (DuckTales: Remastered and Shovel Knight — see “FunBITS: Shovel Knight Digs Up the Fun” 13 December 2014), and a better game library.
I’m not even factoring in cheaper options, such as the Fire TV Stick, Chromecast, and various other editions of the Roku. Also, smart TVs have advanced steadily since we first published “Take Control of Apple TV.” The Netflix app on my Vizio TV is superior to the Apple TV version because it supports categories and 4K video.
Apple sat on its laurels too long, and that gave competitors a chance to catch up and surpass Apple in the living room. I initially gave the Fire TV a middling review (see “Amazon Fire TV Turns Up the Heat on Apple TV,” 2 April 2014), but it’s the box I would recommend today if you’re not already enmeshed in the iTunes ecosystem.
Media Business Intrigue: Apple can redesign remotes, lower prices, and add features and polish, but the one thing it seems incapable of doing is going toe-to-toe with the TV-industrial complex.
It’s a forbidding system. The relationship among networks, advertisers, and content makers is a tangled web that’s only getting more complicated. Cable company Comcast now owns both NBCUniversal and DreamWorks Animation, making Comcast more powerful. Comcast’s dominant position can only make things harder for Apple in the future. If Apple angers Comcast, it could respond by pulling its vast library of content from iTunes. I’m sure this is one reason why Apple is investing in its own original programming, but it’s far behind the curve here — Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu are well ahead.
Having to activate seemingly every other video app with a cable provider is a usability nightmare. A unified panel for doing this would be helpful, or media companies could let one activation work for all apps from the same provider. Why should you have to activate A&E, History, and Lifetime separately, when they’re all owned by A&E Networks? If you sign in to one Google app on your iPhone, you’re automatically signed in to other Google apps. Single sign-on is a solved problem, but again, I suspect background politics are preventing a better solution.
Obviously, traditional media companies don’t have much incentive to aid the future of TV, and with things like data caps and activations, they’re doing all they can to slow it to a halt. As a result, it’s usually just easier, and often cheaper, to watch TV on your cable or satellite box.
Developer Fatigue: Apple developers have had a lot to deal with in the past year. iOS 9 added new features like Split Screen and Picture in Picture, along with a bunch of behind-the-scenes changes. iPhones and iPads now come in several different sizes, each requiring a degree of optimization. On top of that, developers have to deal with the rapidly changing watchOS and tvOS, not to mention other platforms, like OS X, Android, Windows, and the Web.
For many developers, particularly smaller shops, it’s overwhelming. And it doesn’t help that developers don’t feel as though Apple has their best interests in mind. A common lament these days is that Apple promotes big developers while ignoring the little guys. To make matters worse, Apple’s policies have pushed app pricing down to unsustainable levels. There just isn’t much money in the App Store anymore, particularly for smaller developers. And if you do produce a successful app, there’s no guarantee that Apple won’t copy your concept outright or kick you out of the App Store for no apparent reason (see “iOS 8 App Development Becomes a “Bring Me a Rock” Game,” 15 December 2014). Or, worst of all, Apple keeps you off its platform and then implements your idea, like it did with f.lux (see “iOS 9.3 Works the Night Shift, Protects Notes, and More,” 21 March 2016)? You might even sell hundreds of copies of an app, only to have those sales refunded years later. To add insult to injury, developers might have to compete with other media in the App Store itself! Developer enthusiasm is at a new low, and what once felt like a gold rush now seems more like post-1960s San Francisco.
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.)
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 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” 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,” 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,” 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.