The first half of 2019 has in many ways mitigated the Apple TV’s usefulness. Early in the year we learned that smart TVs would gain support for AirPlay 2 and HomeKit, which were formerly exclusive to Apple’s set-top device. Then more recently, Apple launched a brand new TV app which will also live on both smart TVs and third-party streaming sticks. Following these announcements, it was unclear whether Apple was content to let the Apple TV become even more of a niche product than before, or if the company would put renewed efforts into the product to help differentiate it from new competition. It turns out the latter was true – at least to a degree.
tvOS 13 is perhaps the most substantial update to the Apple TV’s software since the debut of tvOS in 2015. That’s not saying a lot, because past updates have been relatively lackluster, but it does say something about Apple’s commitment to the Apple TV platform. Taken in combination with the redesigned TV app that arrived last month, this latest version of tvOS makes a strong case for Apple finally taking television seriously – particularly as the launch of Apple TV+ draws nearer.
The latest version of tvOS starts with an updated Home screen, which includes a Control Center pane, and most notably adds multi-user functionality, as well as expanded game controller support, plus a few other upgrades.
Over the last few weeks Apple has quietly debuted a new YouTube channel dedicated to one of its services: Apple TV. The Apple TV channel is home to a variety of videos, like trailers for upcoming films and TV shows, exclusive behind the scenes clips and interviews tied to popular shows and movies, and, of course, videos highlighting Apple's own original content efforts, like an Apple TV+ trailer and Carpool Karaoke previews.
Every video on the channel appears to be ad-free, which could offer a compelling reason to watch trailers for upcoming films, such as Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, through the Apple TV channel rather than a competing channel where ads are commonplace.
The launch of an Apple TV channel on YouTube is no big surprise, particularly as Apple moves further into the video and entertainment space. However, the channel does have an odd, yet interesting relationship with Apple's own TV app. While the channel serves to promote the Apple TV service, its videos by and large aren't available on that service's app. The behind the scenes clips and interviews found on this new channel are not currently available in the Apple TV app, only on YouTube – though it's certainly possible that will change in the future. Similarly, most of the trailers on YouTube are unavailable in the TV app, since unreleased films and shows don't exist in TV's content database.
Trailers for unreleased films have historically been served through Apple's iTunes Trailers platform, which is still alive though somewhat stagnant – the iOS app hasn't been updated for a year and carries many dated design conventions. However, the launch of an Apple TV YouTube channel may indicate Apple's plans to slowly shutter that service.
As Apple's redesigned TV app launches next month as part of tvOS 12.3 and iOS 12.3, and we draw nearer to the launch of Apple TV+ this fall, it will be interesting to see what kind of content Apple funnels through this new YouTube channel rather than the TV app itself. Will most videos continue to be YouTube-exclusive, simply serving to promote films and shows that can be watched in the TV app? Or will the TV app eventually house all of this content as well, with YouTube merely serving as a means of greater exposure for Apple's TV efforts? We shouldn't have to wait long to find out.
Today during Apple's "It's Show Time" event, the company took the wraps off its long-brewing new efforts in the realm of TV. There was a sneak peek at Apple's own video streaming service launching this fall, Apple TV+, as well as a newly redesigned TV app that's coming in May, and a new component being added to that app alongside the redesign: Channels.
Now, as someone who's been running homebridge and the homebridge-webos-tv plugin for the past few months (and I promise I will write about this eventually), I'm excited about the idea of having a native interface for controlling my TV from the Home app (and, ideally, Siri too). As you can see, the plugin I'm currently using can only "fake" controls in the Home app by adding switches. It can get...confusing:
Configuring homebridge plugins (left) requires working with a JSON document. (View full size)
But it works. I've been running homebridge and this plugin without issues for months now, and I've gotten so used to asking Siri to change inputs on my TV, I can't imagine not having these integrations anymore. A recent update to homebridge-webos-tv even added support for individual channel input and more remote control buttons. For this reason, assuming that the folks at LG don't change their mind and ship a HomeKit software update for older TV sets, I think I'm going to experiment with a dual setup for webOS TV support in HomeKit: some controls based on the official HomeKit API, and others provided as custom switches – both based on homebridge plugins. But that's a story for another time.
Samuel Axon of Ars Technica published an article over the weekend about the state of gaming on Apple TV, inspired by the recent demise of Minecraft on the platform. In it he shares quotes from notable iOS and tvOS game developers about Apple's problems with the Apple TV as a gaming platform.
On the subject of Minecraft, Team Alto developer Ryan Cash said:
"If I were in charge of the game...I think I'd really try to stay there. While the platform certainly isn't the biggest, it continues to grow, and it's a great way for certain types of audiences to experience gaming, often for their first time."
Strange Flavour's CEO Aaron Fothergill expressed similar sentiments, highlighting how easy it is to port a game from iOS to tvOS. He did, however, share one common request for the platform:
"I...like the idea of game controllers (ideally Apple ones) being bundled with the Apple TV as an actual Apple option. So there's an Apple TV being sold specifically for games."
Finally, developer Patrick Hogan shared three things he believes Apple should do:
Include an Apple-branded, full-featured controller with every Apple TV.
Market the Apple TV as a gaming platform.
"Spend a lot of money on funding platform exclusives, ports, and presence at every major gaming expo and conference to break the chicken-egg problem of getting customers to make it viable to devs."
Gaming is clearly an area where Apple could have more success if it wanted to. Producing a controller to bundle with the Apple TV, even if it were just included with certain SKUs of the device, wouldn't be that difficult for the company. Clearly it's just something that the execs in Cupertino don't want to pursue at this time.
It could be challenging bridging the gap between the touch-first games of iOS and potential controller-first titles on the Apple TV, but if Nintendo can walk that line successfully with the Switch, I don't doubt that Apple could do the same. Until such a strategy shift takes place though, Apple TV gaming is likely to remain stuck in mediocrity.
According to a report in the New York Times, producers and executives who have met with Apple recently said the company is targeting sometime between March 2019 and summer 2019 to launch a video service. With about a dozen shows signed in the past several months, the Times says Apple is on track to spend significantly more than the $1 billion or so that it told TV executives last year it had budgeted to spend on programming. The report says the turning point came last summer:
The week after “Planet of the Apps” made its debut, Mr. Cue greatly improved the company’s standing in the entertainment industry by hiring the veteran television executives Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht away from Sony Pictures Television, the studio behind “Breaking Bad” and “The Crown.”
The two executives moved quickly to build Apple Worldwide Video from the ground up, expanding its staff to roughly 40 people and opening divisions for adult dramas, children’s shows and Latin American and European programming. In putting together its slate of 12 projects (and counting), Mr. Van Amburg and Mr. Erlicht made deals with big names including Reese Witherspoon (for three shows), Steven Spielberg, Damien Chazelle, M. Night Shyamalan, Jennifer Aniston, Octavia Spencer and Kristen Wiig.
As reports have trickled in about new shows that Apple has signed, it’s become clear that the company has plans to launch a full slate of original programming. Although it remains unclear how Apple intends to roll the shows out to consumers, the New York Times' report provides an interesting peek at where the project stands today and when it might launch.
Apple has added a dedicated News section to its TV app on the Apple TV and iOS devices. The feature, which was announced at the company’s September 2017 event at the Steve Jobs Theater in Cupertino, allows users to jump straight into several different news programs.
In the US, the choices include CBS News, CNN, Fox News, Cheddar, CNBC, and Bloomberg, some of which require paid subscriptions. When you select a news source, your Apple TV or iOS device will prompt you to install its app if it isn’t already on your device. On iOS, and at least with CNN on the Apple TV, the app is installed without a trip to the App Store, after which you are taken directly to the app to begin watching the news. The new feature also works with Siri using commands like ‘Watch CNBC.’
If you tap on a news source for which you don't have the app, you are prompted to install it without having to go to the App Store. (View full size)
News joins the TV app’s dedicated Sports section, which was announced at the same time as News but was introduced last December. Unlike Sports, which occupies a dedicated tab in the TV app’s interface, News is limited to a single row of icons that appears beneath Up Next, What to Watch, Sports, and a row of featured content.
I was trying to update my two Apple TVs (a 4K model and a 4th generation one) to the latest tvOS 11.2.5 beta earlier today to test AirPlay 2 (more on this soon) and, because I remembered there was a way to install tvOS betas without a USB-C cable, I was attempting to download Apple's tvOS beta configuration profile using Safari on iOS. However, as soon as I tapped the Download button on Apple's developer website, I got this message instead of a new tab showing the downloaded configuration file:
I don't know when Apple changed this behavior, but I recalled that Safari wouldn't try to install tvOS configuration profiles on an iOS device. Without a way to manually fetch the .mobileconfig file and save it to my Dropbox, I was going to unplug my TVs and connect them to my MacBook Pro (which usually sits in the closet until it's recording day for AppStories or Relay) to finish the process.