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Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Joe Rosensteel

The future of TV is… what again?

If you blinked during the State of the Union, you missed it.

I’ve always been fascinated in the quest for the ultimate home-entertainment experience. For every bit that legitimately promises to revolutionize how we watch TV at home, there seems to be a new complication that prevents everything from coming together seamlessly.

I had high hopes that Apple might be the first company to really pull it all together, but its announcement of the 4th generation Apple TV in 2015 kind of botched things. The company been attempting to put things back together since 2015, and every year I’d post a WWDC wish list on my blog with what I’d like to see them do.

But I gave up wishing a while ago. I’ve lost faith that the people managing tvOS think it needs the same kinds of improvements that I do, and it’s just not any fun to create a list of must-have features for a product that seems mostly neglected.

I guess Apple must have felt the same way! Because this year’s WWDC announcements regarding tvOS lack any meaningful changes, and more importantly, communicate nothing about where the platform is going.

What we’re getting

There’s no landing page or list that Apple provides about what’s coming in tvOS 16. I’ve pulled this short list from 9to5Mac with some editorializing from me:

  • Nintendo Switch controller compatibility. Why? Why? Why? WHY?
  • HDR10+ support. Finally.
  • Video-forward featuring on the Apple TV+ tab. “Rich video previews at the top of the Apple TV+ tab help users discover their next favorite Apple Original.” Yuck. Also weirdly just to promote Apple TV+. Best of luck to the folks over at Epix and Acorn!
  • Matter support. Eventually. Later this year.
  • Better Apple Fitness+ integration between Apple TV and Apple Watch.

Go Apple, give us nothing!

The Platforms State of the Union presentation mentioned Apple TV, but only in passing. There’s no articulated vision for the platform at any point in the presentation.

Digging deeper in to the WWDC videos on Apple’s site there’s a 24 minute-long session about designing video interfaces. It’s for iOS and iPadOS, not for tvOS. The tvOS playing experience is only referenced to explain where the title and subtitle elements came from, that developers should use AVPlayerView because AVPlayerView has support for “all” remotes built in (more on that later), interstitial support from tvOS going to iOS and iPad OS, and optional playback speed controls being added to the overflow menu on all platforms.

However, the design decision to focus on content comes at the expense of context and clarity. Metadata being exposed for title and subtitle is fine, but season and episode number have to be encoded into those strings by the developer, there’s nothing in the player that pulls that from a sidecar or metadata file, or any design opinion from Apple over how to format such information for consistency.

There are also brief mentions of tvOS in other videos about metadata and networking for device-to-device interaction, and SharePlay is solving the problems of 2020.

Multi-user support is “improved” this year. As this video mentions, they’ve been improving it since tvOS 13, which gives some idea of the slow pace of progress. The changes this year are more likely to result in at least a few apps implementing it, but so much of it relies on complex interactions that I’m skeptical about both adoption and usage.

The thing that I’ve found that’s the most exciting? Developers can proactively restore an in-app purchase. This was a complaint I had when setting up my Apple TV 4K last year, where none of the in-app purchases, and subscriptions, migrated over. That that is what I’m most excited about either means I’m very boring or the list of features is very boring.

Obviously, I’m not complaining about the few features that are new, or improved, I’m complaining about the fact that they’re few. The platform isn’t in a place where it needs only a few tweaks and nudges.

All the platform is a stage, and the streaming apps are merely players

The major developers develop their own video players. Apple tweaking AVPlayerKit and saying that developers should use it because it has support for “all” remotes really means: Please support the jog wheel feature on the remote we redesigned last year, pretty please, we’d really appreciate it.”

Apple doesn’t meaningfully address any reasons why a developer would chose to make their own player, like offering unified appearance for their app across devices, or providing richer, more interactive options. There isn’t even a punitive reason for developers to alter course. Apple optimizing the player to “get out of the way” of content doesn’t help if there’s no place to put displaced functionality like Amazon’s X-Ray, or Netflix’s very specific controls.

What company, and what developer, is going to argue in favor of ripping out the custom players they’ve spent years building for something that doesn’t help their own interests? There isn’t even a reason for consumers to ask for AVPlayerView, because it might be a more consistent player if it was implemented everywhere, but it isn’t a better player. The benefit of implementing AVPlayerKit is mainly for Apple, not for anyone else.

Two households, both alike in disfunction

The other major thing that’s missing is any meaningful improvement to the TV app. We’re still living with the home screen of apps, and Apple’s TV app, in 2022. Neither are good springboards for users to get to their content, or for developers (other than Apple) to promote content, which isn’t enticing anyone who’s not in the TV app1 to reconsider. None of the data is personalized to users, which is also another reason that profiles and user switching, don’t amount to much.

What Apple should really do is get rid of both. Give us a homescreen that has the top section devoted to Up Next, then a row under it that lets users pin frequently used apps which don’t play nice with anything, like Netflix, with the far right of that row being an “app drawer” for the rest – not dissimilar to what Amazon does with the current (mostly bad) Fire TV home screen. Then under that can be row after row of Apple TV exclusive personalized and relevant suggestions.

Condense services that offer both apps and services into a single entity, so people who subscribe to the Paramount+ app, or Starz app, aren’t presented with suggestions to subscribe to the Paramount+ or Starz channels. Create a way to migrate subscription types for developers. This would also help with the presentation of suggestions to consumers.

If Apple wants to promote Channels still, and doesn’t consider it dead, they should have the same “tab” for each Channel that they have for Apple TV+. That would also entice smaller streamers to keep Channels.

Guide of news, and sports of dogs

Even with all those basic, unaddressed things, there’s still work to be done for live TV, as I’ve said before. Amazon is already at work on integrating live TV offerings from multiple streaming apps and sources on their Fire TV platform and Apple will go another year without any live TV solution other than the grid of sports games for services you might not even have.

The future of TV is app-liances

One assumption I’ve made about the paltry progress is that Apple’s doing that thing where they hold back features, or major changes, to coincide with the launch of new hardware. There have been rumors on the horizon of some kind of lower-priced model, and also a living room teleconferencing nightmare. Perhaps any special magic sprinkles are being saved to demo alongside hardware in one of those strained presentations.

However, that assumption is undermined a little by Apple pushing what they see as a successful player implementation to all their platforms. And the time to really bring developers up to speed on any changes to the home screen, or TV app, is during WWDC, not in a product unveiling.

Also, magic sprinkles aren’t really what the platform is missing. I’d like it if they just made watching TV better.

  1. Cough Netflix cough 

[Joe Rosensteel is a VFX artist, writer, and co-host of the Defocused and Unhelpful Suggestions podcasts.]

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