The Apple TV’s Mixed Reception

The following was originally written as a guest spot for Samantha Bielefeld’s website. Since its initial publishing, Samantha’s true identity has come to light and I no longer feel comfortable with my work living there. I requested that the piece be removed and now that her Twitter account has been rebooted, I felt the time was right to republish it.

I’ve addressed the situation here and if you’d like a more comprehensive rundown, I encourage you to read Álvaro Serrano’s A Matter of Respect and Michael Anderson’s Samantha Bielefeld is Victor Johnson: The Story.

On Apple TV Reviews

Reviews of the new Apple TV started showing up on Wednesday of last week with deliveries of the device starting to arrive on Friday. I wholeheartedly expected to see overwhelmingly positive reactions from reviewers and owners in my Twitter timeline. But what I saw instead was a barrage of complaints about what I’d consider to be relatively minuscule pain points about the experience.

One annoyance I saw pointed out time and time again on Twitter was also echoed by David Pogue in his review of the set-top-box — the less-than-stellar text input method which displays characters in a single row rather than in a cluster. I haven’t used the device myself, but I can imagine this is a dreadful experience, but one I expect will be fixed shortly.

Another major complaint — which Christina Warren, Lance Ulanoff, and John Gruber discussed in a recent episode of MashTalk — was the tedious setup experience for all of the media apps that require a cable subscription. Like many others, I had hoped that Apple would design a universal authentication system that allowed users to login with their cable account once and be able to use all of the media apps that required it automatically. Unfortunately, I don’t believe these systems allow for this — none of them talk to one another and each require the input of a unique code generated when you login with your cable account. It’s annoying, but luckily you’ll only have to do it once. And when Apple is eventually able to convince media companies to jump on board with their video subscription service, you won’t have to spend anymore time in the network-specific applications.

The last problem that I’ve seen a lot of complaints about — most notably by Jason Snell on Six Colors — is the lack of support in Apple’s Remote app for the new Apple TV. From Jason’s piece:

The Remote app doesn’t work with this new Apple TV, not even a little bit. So when the Apple TV suddenly asked me for my iCloud user name and password—which it already knew, by the way, because of that fancy pairing feature at the start—I got to laboriously peck it out, character by character, including all those special characters that require toggling to the symbols keyboard.

I have my own theory about this odd omission from the Remote app — I think Apple’s planning a much larger, all-encompassing Apple TV management app which would do for the Apple TV what the Watch app does for the Apple Watch. But currently, users are left to input text by selecting characters with the included Siri Remote rather than typing it out on an iOS device. This of course, further exacerbates complaints about the device’s poor text-input method.

What gets me about this is how everyone’s complaints about small problems have obfuscated what makes the new Apple TV a big deal — apps. The company that revolutionized software distribution, controls the lion’s share of profits in the smartphone industry, and also happens to be the largest company in the world, is attempting to do the same for the television as they did for mobile phones. This is a huge deal and something that seems to have been completely overlooked by everyone discussing the new device.

I suppose this is to be expected, though. Apple is much later to the party then they should have been with applications on the television. Apple released the original Apple TV in 2007, the same year as the iPhone, and it took them eight-and-a-half years to introduce an App Store for their set-top-box. This stands in stark contrast to the comparatively rapid deployment of the App Store for iOS which was introduced in 2008 alongside iPhone OS 2.0. I remember rampant speculation at the time about when Apple was going to do the same for the Apple TV — it seemed so obvious, this was the direction they were always heading in.

And the competition knew it too. Google, as far as I can tell, was the first to introduce apps to the television in 2010, through Google TV, with Roku following in 2011 with games and apps on their second-generation set-top-box. A few years later, Amazon debuted their Fire TV with an app store in 2014. Meanwhile, TV manufacturers have been dabbling in apps for smart TVs for a few years now.

Apple’s a company filled with brilliant engineers, they must have known.

In hindsight, it’s clear why it took them this long to turn their set-top-box into a software platform — there was always bigger fish to fry. They couldn’t have done it in 2008 because nearly the entire company was focused on the iPhone and the App Store. They had another great opportunity in 2010 with the release of the second-generation Apple TV whose OS just happened to have been built on iOS. But that same year the company released the iPad — a device whose sales started out stronger than the iPhone and (last I heard) was the fastest selling consumer electronics product in history.

The time is finally right for Apple to introduce an App Store for televisions, but the overall response from reviewers and users alike seems to be a bit more lukewarm than you’d expect given Apple’s history. Everyone’s almost entirely focused on the small nitpicks rather than taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture — an App Store for your TV is revolutionary. A platform like this could allow for incredibly rich applications with functionality that we haven’t even thought of yet. But it might take a few years for everyone to realize this. During the early stages of this product, we shouldn’t be focusing so much on the minor wrinkles which Apple will surely iron out within a few short months — as evident by the addition of top charts on Monday. We should instead be discussing the enormity of an App Store for your television, brought to you by the largest and most influential company in the world, with the backing of thousands of developers who are already familiar with the development tools.

I completely understand why we’re talking about the small problems, though. Not just because we want Apple to fix them, but because we’ve all become jaded to the idea of app stores. In the time that Apple was treating the Apple TV like the hobby that it was, Google, Roku, Amazon, and even TV manufacturers beat them to the punch. Everyone else already has an application platform for the television — it’s old news — and reviewers and users are reacting based on that fact. Apple’s platform is late and, in some ways, doesn’t quite have the polish that we’ve come to expect from them. So, we’re complaining.

Don’t get me wrong, many reviews of the device have been positive — Nilay Patel even called it “the nicest TV streaming box available” in The Verge’s video review, but it was buried behind a myriad of complaints about small software limitations and annoyances. I have also seen some Apple TV owners in my timeline lauding the device’s features, but the overwhelming majority of discussion has been about text input, the Remote app, and application discoverability.

I have high hopes, though. In a few short months, after Apple’s shipped a software update or two, we’ll no longer have quite as many criticisms to talk about. What we’ll be left with is a well-crafted software platform that could revolutionize the way we think about our TVs, in much the same way the App Store has changed how we think about our telephone. As long as developers build incredible software and Apple continues to focus on improving the experience for users, this is going to be a big deal.