There’s a new Apple TV, a game-changing update to the online TV-streaming box that will finally make cutting cable painless — at least that’s what the reviewers are saying. There’s no arguing that the Apple TV update itself is impressive — with a touch-sensitive remote, an updated on-screen interface, and voice-searching that actually works, this is now probably the best, most intuitive streaming box out there. But the real question is, with the rise of smart TVs, does it matter anymore?
The age of the Internet-connected television is nearly upon us. A few years ago, smart TVs were relatively rare. WiFi connectivity was found primarily on premium displays, and was touted as a selling point to differentiate models. Today, smart TVs are the default. Samsung currently offers a total of 48 TVs on its U.S. site, 34 of which are smart. LG, meanwhile, has 50 smart TVs. Marketing language is still trumpeting smartness, but you now have to actively search for a new TV that’s dumb.
This is terrible news for Apple TV, and for every species of dedicated streamer. These are essentially evolutionary dead ends, soon-to-be relics that exist only to bridge the gap between two generations of TVs. Within a handful of years, as consumers replace their non-smart TVs with WiFi-enabled models, streamers will be facing the very real threat of extinction. Why add the clutter and complexity of powering on, switching inputs to and operating a separate streaming device when viewers can simply pull up the Netflix app on their display?
So why are we even talking about Apple TV? Because it’s Apple, of course. Apple TV might be playing a concerto on the deck of the Titanic, but it has every reason to absolutely nail this last performance.
What’s at stake isn’t the future of Apple TV, a product that never fully took off anyway (and whose disappearance won’t be much of a loss), but Apple’s future in digital media. Specifically, this is about pulling users into the iTunes ecosystem of streaming video, at the very moment when streaming is beginning to eclipse everything else. Just as the iPod turned millions of people into iTunes music customers, and the iPhone scared up more than 100 billion App Store downloads, Apple TV has one last chance at pitching the merits of iTunes-based video, before every TV is capable of streaming an essentially unlimited amount of content.
There’s a lot to like about shows and movies on iTunes, and the entire Apple TV experience. The streamer itself earns its high price (it starts at $149, compared to $35 for Google’s Chromecast, or $100 for the latest Amazon Fire TV). The updated Apple TV interface is currently the most intuitive, and the best suited to navigating the glut of streaming content now available across a wide array of services. Swiping through rows of choices with the remote’s touch-sensitive panel is more efficient than having to click, rapid-fire, with a more standard remote, and a smart nod to the smartphone-based muscle memory we’ve all developed. The way content is presented is refreshingly brand-agnostic — where Amazon’s streamers prioritize the company’s Instant Video selections, and display other services as backup options, Apple arranges options and fetches search results with relatively impartial on-screen design. And while competing devices also accept voice commands, Apple’s Siri-based algorithms are less frustrating. Sure, that’s a backhanded compliment, but at this stage in the development of voice interfaces, any reduction in aggravation should be considered a triumph. And searching through speech, instead of fiddling with awkward on-screen keyboards, is definitely the future of streaming video, especially on TVs. The relative expense of Apple TV is justified by its emphasis on ease of use.
And the seemingly high price of iTunes is, in many ways, an error in logic. When you can watch an entire season of a show on Amazon or Netflix as part of your all-you-can-eat subscription, paying $3 per episode to watch a series on iTunes can appear exorbitant. But iTunes isn’t competing with streaming services. It’s taking on cable and satellite. If you’re a discerning cord-cutter, with only a few currently airing TV series that you’re interested in watching, your choice is to drop $9 per month to own every episode of those shows on iTunes, or spend around $80 for cable (that being the average monthly bill). With the exception of Amazon Instant Video, the other streaming services, such as HBO Now, Hulu, and Netflix, all work with Apple TV, so it supports the same binging behavior that’s possible with both smart TVs and competing streamers. What sets Apple TV apart is the option to buy new shows à la carte, as well as something we’ll call the iTunes last resort.
When you’ve exhausted all options on streaming services — which can happen quicker than you might expect, since Netflix, for example, has a truly random selection of movies, and searches for specific fixes almost always come up empty — you can always rent or buy something on iTunes. Apple’s 65,000-strong catalog of series and films trumps any lineup of OnDemand rentals. And though Amazon’s selection might seem comparable, its titles are more likely to be in standard definition. For breadth of choice and HD image quality, iTunes remains dominant. Even if you rarely rent or buy content from Apple, it’s a compelling backup plan to have. And the fact that iTunes is exclusive to Apple TV, at least for watching on a flatscreen, distinguishes it from the streaming boxes and sticks bombarding the market, as well as the smart TVs that are about to eat everyone’s lunch.
For Apple to remain relevant in the coming, streaming-dominant media landscape, it has to make iTunes indispensable. Apple TV’s immensely intuitive user interface is important, but LG’s responsive and easily mastered webOS smart TV interface proves that other companies can pull off that trick, too. Apple needs to establish the iTunes last resort, the idea that, when Netflix lets you down, whether because it’s not showing current-season episodes of The Walking Dead, or it only has the first Terminator movie, grinding your planned marathon to a halt, iTunes has your back.
Apple TV doesn’t support 4K, which is the next level of resolution for streaming video that’s included with the newest Amazon and Roku streamers. But that’s not a concern for Apple. 4K TVs are still for early adopters only, and 4K content is still too rare to justify buying 4K-capable hardware. By the time 4K is ready for the mainstream, there’s little doubt that iTunes and iTunes-compatible devices will support it. That’s a discussion for the future of streaming. Apple’s struggle for streaming relevance is happening right now.