“The future of TV is here.”
It is not the world’s most understated tagline for a new product, especially one from Apple. If you want to set sky-high expectations around a new TV product after years of rumors and sly winks and shelved plans, well, that’s exactly how to do it. You say that you’ve invented the future of TV, and that it is here.
You say it while knowing full well that Steve Jobs set the stage for a radical new TV from Apple in 2011 by directly telling his biographer that he’d “finally cracked it,” and that he wanted to create “an integrated television set that is completely easy to use,” with “the simplest user interface you could imagine.”
You say that the future of TV is here even though every attempt to place a computer at the center of the living room experience has bombed catastrophically for nearly two decades, and that rivals like Microsoft and Google have each been floored by the challenges of television.
You take the weight of those expectations, you bring the power of the Apple brand to bear, and you lift the entire entertainment industry out of the chaotic technological mess it’s built for itself and right into the shiny new future of voice control and touchpad remotes, just like we were always promised.
The future of TV is here.
Or is it?
Here’s the basic blueprint for a modern media streaming device: a smallish black box that runs a zillion apps from various TV networks and service providers like Netflix, all indexed into some sort of universal search and controlled by voice.
That’s the $129 Roku 4, the $99 Amazon Fire TV 2, and the $99 Google Nexus Player, each to varying degrees of success. And it’s also the new Apple TV, which is more expensive than all of those with a base price of $149, although of course Apple’s added some of its typical flourish to the mix.
Take setup, which usually requires some painful entering of Wi-Fi passwords and iCloud credentials and so on — with the new Apple TV, you just get your iPhone with iOS 9.1 and Bluetooth on near the unit, and it grabs everything it needs to get online and get started. That’s pretty cool.
Or take the remote, which is a sleek black rectangle with a glass touchpad at the top; home, menu, play, and volume buttons; an accelerometer and gyroscope; and dual microphones for voice commands that are triggered by holding down the Siri button. It’s basically all the hardware interface elements of an iPhone reworked for a 10-foot television experience; it even charges over Lightning.
Or take the visual flair of the interface, popping with subtle 3D effects and interesting ideas about how the multilayered glass aesthetic of iOS should translate to a TV. It’s not radically different than the previous Apple TV interface or any of its competitors, but it’s far sleeker. The combination of the remote and interface feels tight and polished and futuristic in a way that makes Roku and Fire TV feel plastic and utilitarian. I will say that the touchpad can be more flashy than useful — there isn’t a single part of the main interface that actually requires it, and you can get around just fine using a universal remote with a D-Pad.
But it’s really what’s underneath that’s the news here: tvOS, a new Apple OS that is basically iOS reworked for television. Previous Apple TVs ran their own weirdo riffs on iOS, but tvOS is a proper part of the Apple platform family alongside OS X, iOS, and watchOS. Most importantly, tvOS brings support for Siri and the App Store to the Apple TV, which means any app developer can create apps for the system. The potential here is massive: this thing is basically a computer under your TV.
But while iOS on the iPhone and iPad is a mature, capable operating system with tons of flexibility and a huge variety of apps, tvOS is very much a first-generation product. In day-to-day use, it’s basically the same as the previous Apple TV with the addition of a drastically stripped-down Siri and ported iPhone games.
THE EXECUTION HERE IS AMONG THE BEST IN THE GAME
Seriously: you won’t notice many changes from the previous Apple TV, save those fun 3D effects and the switch from a black background to a whitish-gray version, until you hold down the Siri button. Then you can ask any number of interesting questions about shows and movies in pretty granular detail — I asked for “‘80s movies with Tom Cruise on Netflix” and Siri found me Top Gun and Risky Business, for example. Delightful. Once you select a movie or show, Siri will open a universal landing page that deep links you right into the various services that offer the content. So if you search for Game of Thrones, you’ll see that you can buy it on iTunes and stream it on HBO Go or HBO Now, and you’re off to the races. In terms of iterative improvements to the Apple TV, this is the most important thing Apple could have done, and the execution here is among the best in the game.
But limitations are everywhere. Only a small handful of apps work with Siri search right now — iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and Showtime — so finding something in, say, the ESPN or CBS apps isn’t possible. Siri can’t find you a funny YouTube video, which seems like a shame. Tim Cook says a Siri search API is coming, but I get the feeling Apple wants Siri search to be a differentiator for the more premium services, so we’ll see how wide open that API is when it gets here. And once Siri drops you into a streaming app from that universal search, it’s a free-for-all — they all have different interfaces and recommendation engines, and none of them talk to each other. Shouldn’t Siri pay attention to what you’re watching and suggest content across services? Or at least give you a Most Recently Watched list across all your services, like the Fire TV and Roku? One of the best things about traditional TV is the serendipity of flipping it on and seeing something you like, or finding something new. There’s a big discovery piece that really ties all these services together that’s missing here. TV isn’t all about demanding things from a robot.
Siri can also launch apps and get you sports scores, stocks, and weather, but that’s about it. There’s no voice feedback. There’s none of Siri’s trademark attitude — asking it to divide 0 by 0 gets nothing — and it can’t set timers, convert units, or look up random facts on Wolfram Alpha or the web. When you ask Siri to play “my favorite movie,” it brings up a 2015 indie movie called… My Favorite Movie. This would be hilarious if this version of Siri had a sense of humor.
Siri is also totally disconnected from Siri on the iPhone — you can’t tell Siri on your phone to play a song or video on your TV, which seems like another huge missed opportunity. And bafflingly, Siri can’t control Apple Music, so asking to play a Taylor Swift song results in nothing. “Sorry, I can’t help you with music,” says the screen. Siri says sorry about a lot of things.
And in the biggest oversight, Siri can’t search for apps in the App Store, or even take dictation into the text field of the App Store search screen. If you thought App Store discovery was kind of messy and bad on iOS, tvOS won’t do anything to change your mind: there will be a few featured categories, a top list, and search. Unless they get featured, app developers will have to convince people to search for new apps by swiping back and forth along the terrible on-screen keyboard, which means their apps are going to have to basically cure disease and print free money to get noticed.
And… that is not what the currently available apps in the App Store do. Most of them are just gigantic iPhone apps. The Periscope app seems like it would be brilliant, but lacks the ability to log into your Periscope account, so you can’t see your friends’ streams or leave comments. The Zillow app appears to be an aggressive attempt to highlight the crime-scene aesthetic of most interior real estate photography. Descriptions for featured games like Shadowmatic andMr. Crab talk about plugging in headphones and tapping on your screen. Laziness abounds.
Now, these games and apps can be fun, and some of them make the jump from the small to big screen so incredibly well that it seems like they’ve always belonged there. Watching people around the world pour their hearts into the Sing karaoke app is amazing on the Apple TV. Does not Commute turns into a totally different game on a much grander scale. The Zova fitness app and Yummly cooking apps are both terrific examples of how large web video libraries can be turned into focused and useful television.
But I am going to be 100 percent crazy honest with you: the single most interesting app in the Apple TV App Store right now is the QVC app.
The QVC app is the only app that really and truly blends television with interactivity: it shows you a live feed of QVC, and it overlays the familiar information box on the left side of the screen with a buy button. So you’re watching the regular QVC TV channel, and you can just click to buy, or swipe down to see more photos of the item and related items while the video keeps playing.
That kind of interactivity is the real future of television, and nothing about the Apple TV outside of the QVC app really leans into it. Now that tvOS is an actual platform, I’m really hoping TV networks lean into the crazy science fiction possibilities of interactive TV within their apps — think live voting on The Voice, or instant reaction polls during debates. Or hell, just let fans decide what an NFL catch is, since no one else seems to know. There’s so much promise here, but it’s all just potential. At this moment, there’s not a single app on the Apple TV that enhances the experience of watching TV nearly as much as simply opening Twitter on your phone during an awards show.
If it sounds like I’m holding the Apple TV to a higher standard than every other product, it’s because I am. Once you really start thinking about the Apple TV and what it is today, it becomes very clear that while Apple was able to significantly improve the parts of the streaming media experience that it can directly control, it wasn’t able to use its leverage to really fix the little annoyances and disconnects littered throughout the TV landscape that it can’t control.
Take setup again: yes, the tap-to-get-settings-from-an-iPhone feature is cool, but you can’t restore anything from a previous Apple TV, so when you first get started you have to head into the App Store and search for and download every streaming app you use. Then, once you’ve got them all, you have to authenticate all of them individually — even apps like HBO Go and Watch ESPN that require the same cable provider TV Everywhere username and password. And the iPhone Remote app doesn’t work with the new Apple TV yet, so you’re stuck either swiping around the onscreen keyboard or digging up a laptop to enter an activation code. It’s frustrating — I found myself reluctant to download new apps because I didn’t really want to log in yet again. If the future of TV is really apps, adding new apps has to be virtually frictionless.
THE VERY BEST VERSION OF TELEVISION’S PRESENT
Not having a single sign-on for apps that require a cable subscription is exactly the sort of piddly nonsense that needs to get solved before the future of TV actually gets here. And solving exactly this sort of piddly nonsense for people again and again is what turned Apple into the richest company in the world. I will go so far as to say that the television market is so complex and so insane that only a company with Apple’s power and influence can force meaningful change. So the pressure is on.
The streaming boxes on the market right now all compete to do very few simple things: get everything you want to watch in a single place, make it all easy to search and discover, and get out of the way. And the Apple TV does that as well or better than anything else on the market. It has virtually every streaming app save Amazon Prime video, Siri works reasonably well and can answer a wider range of questions across services than the Fire TV 2 or Roku, and playback is super fast. If you just want a new streaming box, you can happily buy a new Apple TV. (I would buy the $149 base model.) You’ll like it.
But all of that is very much the best version of television’s present. Apple has a lot more work to do before the future actually arrives.