Apple and the Living Room: Not There Yet

November 1st, 2016

So at one time, there were hopes that Apple really planned to make a difference in your living room. When Steve Jobs told his biographer about discovering or inventing a “magical” interface that would set all things right with your TV experience, many believed he was talking about an Apple TV set.

Indeed, the media freakout may have extended to rival tech companies, as there were reports that Lenovo planned to introduce a smart TV set in the Asian market. I never heard more about it, but I would imagine it was meant as a defense against an expected move by Apple, perhaps with the hope the set would be sold worldwide eventually.

It didn’t matter in the end. Apple decided not to build TV sets. Maybe it’s because the market is old, saturated, and Apple couldn’t find place in which to make a difference. It’s hard to say that it’s an underserved or ill-served market.

That takes us to the fourth-generation Apple TV.

Introduced last year, it was more expensive, but not equipped in any way that would deliver superior picture quality than its predecessor. It did more things, had a different — and whether it’s better is debatable — remote, with Siri support. There’s a growing app ecosystem, with 8,000 selections so far, and a large portion of these are TV apps from different networks and services.

Missing was support for 4K TV sets, which are ending up in more and more homes. This feature is already available from Amazon and Roku, so where’s Apple? True, those products don’t support the wider color gamut feature that will deliver a visible 4K difference if you have a set with support for the HDR feature. I actually expected Apple would offer such an update for this year, but the Apple TV is unchanged. Well, at least you don’t have a gadget that’s destined to be obsolete. Maybe next year.

But dealing with thousands of apps can make your experience far more confusing than it would be on your DVR, where you manage one app and one interface. Apple’s solution appears to be the TV app, introduced at last week’s media event that was otherwise focused in the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar. It will also be available for the iPhone and the iPad.

So the TV app is meant to abstract many TV apps, so you have a single hub or portal from which to access your favorite shows and movies. You can use Siri to find what you want, by name or type of content. Shows can be suggested to you too, so it greatly simplifies your TV experience. In passing, you can already access lots of content from one interface on a Roku.

But Apple’s living room scheme demonstrates typical hubris.

To direct your entire TV experience, you have to use your Apple TV for everything. It’s not a matter of switching between this gadget and your cable/satellite set-top box. If you’re a cord cutter, you’ll feel more comfortable with this setup, but that’s only a minority of users so far.

But here’s the “real” deal breaker: You see, there’s no support for two of the largest TV streaming services, and that’s Amazon Instant Video and, worse, Netflix. But Apple and Amazon haven’t been on the same page for a while. You can’t even buy an Apple TV at Amazon, although I did see gear from Google and Roku over there. But it stands to reason that if Amazon won’t sell the product, there would hardly be support for Apple’s TV app. Amazon Instant Video remains unavailable for Apple TV.

But what about Netflix?

So it appears that Netflix won’t be included in the TV app either, and that can be a deal breaker, since it’s probably the most important streaming service of all. Netflix offers original programming that’s the envy of the industry. From “House of Cards” to “Luke Cage,” there are brilliant shows with great production values and top-draw acting that have spawned a new habit — binging. So instead of watching an episode every week as with most traditional series fare, you can access all the episodes in a season at the same time. You can watch them one after another, until you tire of the process, and pick up the next day or the next week to continue.

I love it!

One theory has it that Netflix doesn’t want to share audience figures, which they would be doing, in part, by allowing the TV app to access their content. It may not give Apple all the figures, but some numbers would be available. On the other hand, I suppose Apple could make a deal with Netflix to keep the numbers confidential and not access that data directly in calculating usage. Doesn’t seem so hard to me.

The other theory is that Netflix doesn’t want to anonymize itself by having content included in a single app as part of a list of available shows. It doesn’t want to cede control of its interface and content to a third-party that’s a potential rival. All right, that makes sense.

But Apple is bringing tons of business to Netflix, so maybe the two parties can strike a deal. Without TV app support, people might overlook some of the treasures offered by Netflix simply because they don’t want to bother dealing with yet another app.

Either way, Apple is taking baby steps. It is still far from actually conquering the living room, and that may not even be the company’s goal anymore.

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