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.