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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Initial thoughts about Apple’s services event

It was an unusual Apple event on Monday. No hardware, not much in the way of software, and a whole lot of services. Plus, a bunch of famous Hollywood types standing on a stage in Cupertino talking about their TV shows. Here are some quick-hit reactions…

Apple News+

Magazines!

Demoing Apple News+ on an iPhone rather than an iPad seems to be a careful choice to make it clear that this isn’t a digital replica like so many “magazine on iPad” efforts have been. The problem is, it seems like only about half of the magazines are in Apple News format rather than available as PDFs.

Apple News format articles are better in so many ways, including accessibility and readability on smaller devices. The PDF replicas are… less inspiring. Presumably Apple won’t bother recommending articles out of PDF replicas elsewhere in the News app, which suggests that Apple is very much trying to make it worth all the partners’ whiles to switch to the more flexible Apple News format.

Apple’s deals with newspapers also interest me. There aren’t too many, but as a Californian I like the idea of getting access to Los Angeles Times content that currently lives behind a firewall, as well as at least a select portion of Wall Street Journal content. The News app is a bit confused about the whole thing, however. I thought I favorited the L.A. Times in Apple News, but the page I went to was entirely paywalled—it was only when I used the Apple News+ tab and found a Times article, and then tapped on the Times logo, that I was able to favorite a version of the L.A. Times that gave me access to full articles.

In short, the News+ content in the News app itself seems to be a bit of a work in progress. It’s nice that the content is there, but it’s a mess. The entire Apple News app is still weird and awkward and could use with a complete overhaul; adding News+ into the mix just underscores that point.

Apple Card

Is the Apple Card going to be the best deal for people who are searching for cash-back bonuses from their credit card? Certainly not, just as Apple hardware is never going to be the cheapest in any category. If you want to do the work to find the best deal and redeem the right points in the right places, you have better options.

Apple is, however, hoping that a lot of its customers will not be interested in redeeming points and using gift cards and otherwise chasing that deal. Instead, Apple offers simplicity (sign up for the card right on your phone), privacy (private transactions and no resale of your data to third parties), and convenience (cash-back rewards appear the same day in Apple Pay Cash). That combination is pretty on-brand for Apple.

As for the physical Apple credit card, which joins a recent trend of fancy metal credit cards? It’s exactly what you’d expect from Apple, whether you think of Apple as cool, pretentious, or a bit of both.

Apple Arcade

The new Apple Arcade service seems to be Apple’s final acceptance that the economic structure of the App Store has led to the dominance of free-to-play games with in-app purchases. Apple makes a lot of money from that system, so rather than replace it, it’s adding a new service designed to provide a revenue stream to developers making a different sort of game, and to appeal to people who love those games. Our house is full of fans of your Monument Valleys and your Alto’s Odysseys, so we’re the perfect audience for Apple Arcade. There is something freeing about knowing that anyone in my family will be able to finish a game (or get bored with it) and then just flip through the Arcade tab in the App Store, looking for something else to play.

Will Apple charge more than we actually spend on games in the App Store every month? Almost certainly. But Apple Arcade will be convenient and curated and, undoubtedly, populated with a lot of desirable games that won’t be available anywhere else. Depending on the quality of the games in the service, it could be really great.

I do wonder how game developers view this service—and how well it will serve them once the service launches. Even if this service is great for consumers, it won’t work if developers just can’t make the economics work. I really do believe Apple is trying to create a place where games like these can be successful, and I hope it succeeds.

I’m also intrigued by Apple’s announcement that the Mac as a part of the service. I have to believe that this is linked, somehow, with its more general move to let iOS apps run on the Mac, beginning this fall. With a service like this spinning up, presumably Apple has made an effort to make it relatively easy for iOS game developers to get their games running on the Mac starting this fall. We’ll see.

Apple TV+

Introducing “See” with images projected on the walls of the Steve Jobs Theater.

It really had to happen. Apple’s not spending billions on a worldwide TV service in order to make some money selling more Apple TV boxes. When Apple announced its first deal to get Apple video content onto Samsung TVs in January, it was clear that it would be attempting to get its new video service everywhere. With its announcement that the Apple TV app will be on Roku and Amazon Fire TV devices, the deed is done. You can spend $29 and get Apple’s video service on your HDTV, via a cheap Roku box. You can spend $49 and get it in 4K. If you’d prefer an all-Apple experience, the Apple TV box is there for you, but it’s not required to watch Apple’s TV shows.

As for Apple TV+ itself, what can be said? We got a vague launch time—this fall—and no hint of a price. We also didn’t get any show trailers, just a single quick-hit “sizzle reel.” Instead, Apple relied on star power, with directors and actors presenting their shows in segments that felt a lot like the introduction to categories at the Oscars. Some were better than others (trained comedy professionals Steve Carell and Kumail Nanjiani showed off their skills), but it was otherwise kind of lifeless.

As my podcast partner (and chief TV critic at The Hollywood Reporter) Tim Goodman likes to say, in the end we need to see the shows—no sizzle reel, no trailer can really let us judge the work. Steven Spielberg’s story of opening up a copy of Amazing Stories as a kid is great, but I remember when he told that story in 1985… and then I saw “Ghost Train,” the first episode of the original NBC series. It was a lifeless drag. All the talent and on-stage storytelling can’t help you if the shows are no good. It’ll be fall before we have any idea on that front.

What I do love about Apple TV+ is that it’s going to roll out everywhere. This is what happens when you make your own stuff—Apple, like Netflix and Amazon, is basically insisting on the worldwide rights for all of the shows they make themselves, and the result is that these new-generation companies don’t get stuck with different rights in different countries like more traditional broadcast networks do. In the background, Apple has been hiring development executives all over the world, including several prominent hires from the BBC.

Of course, the shows they put on stage Monday are all made in North America. But they’re the ones that are the furthest along. Apple’s long-term goal is to supplement its high-budget Hollywood content with material made in other parts of the world, very much along the line of what Netflix is doing (but at a much smaller scale).

Anyway, I was excited to be in the same room as Jennifer Aniston and JJ Abrams, but it’s going to be the shows that make or break the service. All Apple needs is a couple of certifiable must-watch shows and people will pay.

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