Beyond single sign-on: what Apple TV should be doing

Last week, after introducing the new MacBooks, Apple also announced a new update to its TV product. In theory, Apple is heading in the right direction. Tim Cook said that “We want Apple TV to be the one place to access all of your television. One place to access all of your TV shows and movies.” Yet it seems that the video battle is far from being over as there is a big difference between what platforms such as Apple want to provide and what they can.

Single sign-on and unified viewing on the new Apple TV. Source: Apple

Single sign-on and unified viewing on the new Apple TV.
Source: Apple

On the positive side, Apple is trying to provide a single access point and a consistent UI and features across the various content providers. One part of that is a single sign-on (not yet available) for all apps that require a pay-tv subscription making authentication a less prominent and intrusive process. Another is remembering where users paused within a show or series so that they can immediately start watching their favorite movies and shows. It also looks like recommendations are centralized from all apps.

In theory, having a single point of access sounds nice. That said, critics have already pointed out that enjoying the benefits of Apple TV will require a cable or satellite subscription and even that doesn’t include access to exclusive content from special services such as Netflix and Amazon, neither of which is creating an updated Apple TV app.  Says Wirecutter: “clearly Netflix is protecting its own ability to use recommendations to drive viewers to content, but this doesn’t make the lapse any less frustrating for customers.”

It is this extreme fragmentation of content and the gateways built to access it that might be the number one hurdle to creating a “good” video app, even for the almighty Apple. I say “almighty” because on other platforms, especially mobile phones and tablets, Apple has the power to change existing models by providing “access” to its users. It doesn’t really have that power for Apple TV.

It’s interesting to compare video to music streaming services where there is much less fragmentation of content with four major licensees: Sony, Warner, Universal, and Merlin for independent labels. Signing the big three labels gives music services access to 75% of global recordings, which is why the major streaming music providers all have around 35 million songs. Sure, services like Tidal (Beyonce and Kanye) and Apple (Drake) gain exclusive content to very popular artists every once in awhile, but the differentiation between the services is mostly based on features such as recommendations, playlists and smart, voice-activated assistants finding songs by indirect references, such as the movie it was in or the day it topped the charts. Oh, and pricing is exactly the same for all of these services at $10 a month. In music streaming, it is a combination of product features and ease of access, such as a pre-installed app (Apple and Google) or long time music intelligence (Spotify,) that drive preference.

Back to TV. I think that Apple TV’s goal shouldn’t be to create an open platform where it encourages other streaming services to create apps that tie into the ecosystem. That still puts what I think is an insurmountable burden on the user to pick and choose the “right” streaming services for their needs. There’s no need to look beyond sports broadcasting to see how difficult it is for a fans to watch games. For watching basketball, a fan would need not just the NBA’s League Pass, but also local and cable channels that have rights for broadcasting local games. For baseball, it’s the same: a fan would need the MLB at Bat app along with local and cable channels. Which means that on top of the fee for the sports app, they’d need a pay TV subscription. Beyond sports and beyond pay TV, there are four major various streaming services, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and HBO, that each require their own subscription.

So imagine if instead of telling users to cobble together their own viewing package and authenticate each app individually, Apple could offer packages that were not tied to existing pay TV subscriptions and would just include everything. Maybe have a sports and non-sports package because I sense the price difference there will be significant. Otherwise, just include it all. After all, if we use the music streaming model, no service is asking users to pay Sony, Universal and Warner directly for access, right? The music services negotiated on user’s behalf to offer a comprehensive service. Why can’t TV be like that?

PS Not to be completely naive, I realize it’s about control. Control of recommendations to stay on the service, control about who gets to see what and in what zone, and trying to find and maximize revenue streams to make up for the drop in pay TV subscribers. But we can dream about the ideal product, right?

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