What the Apple TV needs to improve: It's personal

Apple Music and Apple News attempt to get to know you. Not so much with the new Apple TV.

appletv siri remote hand primary
Credit: Apple

Having spent a little more than a month with the Apple TV now, is it everything I hoped it would be?

Frankly, I’m a little underwhelmed. To me, the Apple TV feels a bit like the Wild West: an unregulated free-for-all where you’re as likely to strike it rich as you are to wind up in the town jail. I want to love the new Apple TV—I’ve been waiting for it long enough—but it turns out that I only like it. And I know much less about what it thinks of me.

The more I think about it, the more I conclude that the Apple TV lies all the way at the other end of the spectrum from the other new Apple product released this year. Tim Cook has called the Apple Watch “the most personal device we’ve ever created,” but the Apple TV may very well be the least personal.

The app-centric model

“The future of TV is apps,” Apple has told us. It’s not hard to see why the company would take that line: after all, Apple’s had great success with the app on iOS. Why not extend that model to the Apple TV?

appletv netflix interface

The only personalization comes within each app, with no system-wide watchlist or suggestions.

And, in some ways, it is an improvement over the previous channel-based Apple TV model that we lived with for so long. Apps are a known quantity: developers, for the most part, know how to navigate the pitfalls and opportunities of the app economy, even if it’s far from a guaranteed gold rush, and we’ve all spent the last eight years downloading and installing apps—so we ought to feel right at home.

But by putting so much emphasis on apps, Apple has adopted a sort of laissez-faire approach to the Apple TV, and the user ends up getting lost in the shuffle. Unfriendliness abounds, from the process of inputting login credentials to the absence of user-centric features like a systemwide watchlist.

appletv touchpress

A few truly creative apps, like Touchpress's unique view of classical music, stand out from an otherwise underwhelming selection.

And while my Apple Watch and iPhone might know personal details like who I’m likely to call at any given moment or where I’m likely to be going at this time of day, my Apple TV doesn’t know much more about me than where I like to position my apps onscreen. There’s little personalization or even analysis of what I consume.

Some of this is a philosophical choice on Apple’s part, which likes to pride itself on not collecting information about users. But that’s hardly a message it sticks to across the line: look at Apple Music, for example, or the recent venture that is Apple News. There’s clearly a value to trying to suss out what users are interested in, so why not with the Apple TV as well?

State of play

Instead, the app-centric model has led to a balkanization of content, with content providers, streaming services, and cable/satellite companies trying to sell users on their individual fiefdoms. There’s some overlap between what those services offer, but also plenty of exclusive deals that keep content locked to one service or another.

appletv siri no can do

Siri support needs to come to more apps, and do more of what's possible on iOS, like sending commands to HomeKit devices.

The closest concession Apple has given to that is the idea of universal search on the new Apple TV, which should display all the various services on which you can watch a particular piece of content. But it requires developers to opt in, and at the moment, the list is still pretty limited.

This could be an opportunity for Apple to cut through the noise and provide a sort of abstraction layers between users and their content, in the same way that the company is trying to do with news and music. That’s often what Apple does best, but when it comes to video content, it seems to be uninterested in accomplishing the same goal—or, perhaps, unable to.

Questions of identity

These matters aren’t just philosophical; they’re also technical. The biggest frustration for many Apple TV owners is dealing with the process of login and authentication. Both Twitter and Facebook are attempting to help developers solve the problem by providing frameworks that can be embedded in apps and link in with those companies’ services. Both also make a pitch that doing so will help developers personalize that experience for watchers.

appletvchannels1

The new HDHomeRun lets you watch over-the-air channels if you have a $100 tuner attached to your network. But look: a unified list of favorites from across several channels! 

It sure doesn’t seem like Apple, given the protective way it often seems to speak of its customers, to let Twitter and Facebook eat its lunch. Which is one reason I have to believe that Apple has something else up its sleeves.

The Apple TV, as it stands, feels like an incomplete product: a platform in need of a truly killer app. There are plenty of things to like about it: the Siri integration, a pretty nice remote, impressive horsepower for a set-top box. But it’s also become increasingly clear that it’s a modestly improved version of what we already had, and far from a televised revolution.

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