Apple TV: Why It Is Not the Future of TV

Stephen Lam/ Getty Images

Stephen Lam/Getty Images

Apple finally refreshed its Apple TV set-top box, and it just opened preorders for the next-generation version of the device. True to form for new Apple releases, the new Apple TV has gotten a lot of press. Almost everyone’s had something to say about the new set-top box, and many have claimed that Apple TV is the future of television. But if you consider what the future of TV should really look like, that claim doesn’t seem to hold up.

Apps aren’t the future of TV, great content is

Arthur Greenwald reports for Re/code that when Apple previewed the new Apple TV, chief executive Tim Cook said, “We believe the future of television is apps.” But Greenwald notes that the fact that the top four broadcast networks have signed on with Apple TV is hardly a sign that times are changing. He notes that the “most popular content on leading apps most often comes from traditional television networks.” All of the major networks have deals in place with some combination of Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu.

Netflix, and most other video apps, feature a wide array of logos, the most familiar ones being ones that users recognize from traditional TV. TV networks’ shows have a big advantage over the original series produced by streaming services in that networks have time and space to promote their shows. Local affiliates of major networks provide another important venue for promotion, and Greenwald notes that it’s no accident that the major broadcast networks have withheld Apple TV apps until they could confidently include livestreaming of their local affiliates.

But Greenwald thinks Apple knows that apps are only a temporary gateway to the real future of television — particularly if rumors about Apple’s potential streaming service come true. Apple just announced that all apps for the Apple TV’s new tvOS must support the Siri remote in their “core functionality” in order to be listed in the forthcoming Apple TV App Store. But even the requirements Apple will use to ensure consistent user experience across Apple TV apps can’t make apps into the future of TV, since apps aren’t going to revolutionize the way you watch TV. In fact, if you imagine the TV of the future, you probably think of a TV that can at least partially eliminate the need for you to scroll through channels or navigate a screen full of apps in search of something to watch.

The TV of the future will have to surface content you want to watch

Forrester Research analyst Jim Nail tells Wired’s David Pierce that the real potential for set-top boxes is to eliminate the need for channel-flipping by figuring out what you want to watch before even you know. Netflix is an early pioneer of that functionality, and uses a deep archive of data on what you watch and when you watch it to choose original content that you’ll like and offer an endless scroll of recommendations via bizarrely specific, descriptively-named categories.

But Pierce notes that what it isn’t doing is using that data to “just pick something, and put it on as soon as I launch Netflix,” in order to save users from endlessly scrolling through options when all they want to do is just sit down and watch something. Pierce explains, “These boxes should serve up the right thing for right now, no matter what it is or where it comes from.” But while Pierce tries that in an ideal world, all of the various sources of the shows and movies you like would combine their data “into an algorithmically perfect understanding of what you want to watch, and then just show it you,” he acknowledges that that’s never going to happen.

While Apple might have a decade’s worth of iTunes data, plus information on how you use your Apple devices, to try to figure out what shows or movies you might want to watch, its understanding of your interests would be even better if it could take into account the information that Netflix, for instance, has collected on you. Unfortunately, that kind of data-sharing is extremely unlikely to happen, so Apple TV is already settling for the next-best option — even though settling doesn’t sound like a promising way to build the TV of the future.

Users will have to settle for the next-best thing: Universal search

Universal search, when implemented well, will enable you to easily find what you’re looking for across all of the apps and channels that are available to you. That doesn’t solve the problem of figuring out what you want to watch, of course, but it’ll make it easier for you to find either specific series or movies, or even content on a given topic, featuring a specific cast or crew member. Pierce notes that there’s been some significant progress on this front, and he characterizes Roku’s search functionality as excellent, Amazon’s as improving, and Apple TV’s universal search through Siri good enough to be “a core feature of the new TV.”

But to succeed, universal search really has to be universal. There isn’t a single place to get all of the movies and shows you want, and you can’t watch everything you want without signing up for at least a handful of accounts and subscriptions. But the TV of the future should make all of that content available to you, seamlessly and with such a consistent interface and streaming quality that it doesn’t matter where a show or movie is hosted. But Pierce points out that that kind of universal search will treat everything the same, and the corporations that own the content will do everything they can to prevent their content from being unbundled in that manner.

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