Apple TV’s weakest link

Today Apple unveiled its 4th generation Apple TV set-top box. It has plenty of content from iTunes and “traditional” (if not even a decade old) apps such as Hulu and Neftlix and other content providers. About a year ago, Jeffrey Katzenberg defined what it is that viewers need from their video viewing platform. 1. They don’t want friction. 2. They want choice. 3. They want it to be social, to have a conversation. I think that the first two of these principles need to be an integral part of the platform. Social can happen elsewhere. 

Now, let’s take a look at what Apple announced today. First, in addition to multiple content sources, Apple added access to “in the moment” stats from cast information, sports stats and results, and even weather reports. The show and movie search capabilities seem amazing from the demo, from “all of the Bond movies with Sean Connery” to “the Modern Family episode with Edward Norton” to “new movies to watch with kids.” The smooth search for movies and shows is the epitome of friction-less, but that’s not all. Apple TV will also have its own OS for third party apps, the tvOS, and the search will include content from these apps. One example demoed is the new MLB  app. Chad Evans, senior vice president of business development at MLB Advanced Media, says “the app will feature a split screen for watching two games at once, statistics, and other features.” Apple is certainly planning on providing choice. So the platform provides friction-less choice, principles 1 and 2 from Katzenberg’s list. Great, right?

Not so fast. What was left unsaid in the presentation is the cost and the existing state of ultra-fragmented content. On Android TV, a platform I have at home, every app has its own payment system. YouTube and Google Play charge per episode, show, or movie, Netflix requires a monthly subscription, WatchESPN requires a cable account, local network affiliates require a cable subscription (huh? that content is available over the air!) network apps provide access to some episodes for free and others only for a cable subscription, and so on. The MLB app probably doesn’t even provide access to local games even with a cable subscription or by paying $25/month. The Apple TV demo glossed over this payment fragmentation like it didn’t exist.

Let’s face it, if there was an “all-inclusive” monthly fee that Apple could charge for this kind of access (similar to the Apple Music $10 monthly fee) it would. It is this fragmentation that prevents Apple TV from becoming truly friction-less and Siri’s search capabilities, as impressive as they are, will fail when presented with a search result in an app or source that the user has not yet paid for. I’m not sure that this will cause the 2015 edition of Apple TV to, if not to fail, at least to slow adoption. From what I have seen, this is the platform’s weakest link and one not even Apple can find a solution for. The best it will be able to do is to modify search queries to include “only paid-for content,” but why would Apple do that if its goal is to drive up movie and TV show sales in the iTunes store?

Apple TV's cool remote. Source: Apple

Apple TV’s cool remote.
Source: Apple

Not to end on a sour note, I really liked the new remote and its magical (yes, magical!) touch and voice interfaces. I especially liked the “what did she say” feature. Simply say that phrase into the remote’s microphone and the video will jump back 15 seconds and turn on captions. Sweet and practical.

Update, 9/14/15: The New York Times posted an interesting analysis of the difficulties of securing content rights for different types of broadcasts, especially live sports. It seems as if it is such a tangled mess that Apple, perhaps justifiably, has decided to move the focus from content to apps. Apple’s message: “Televisions are for a lot more than just watching TV.” Focusing on apps is certainly smart from Apple’s perspective given the content constraints. The question is if that is what consumers want and expect from a so-called “TV” product.

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