Apple reportedly has a new idea to turn its Apple TV device into a cable-box replacement: The company is looking to develop a new kind of TV guide, which would list content from streaming services like Netflix next to live programming streamed by networks like ESPN, according to a Recode report.
For Apple, this represents a departure from earlier ambitions to build its own online TV service. Confronted with the difficulties of licensing, Apple decided to instead let others supply the content, and completely focus on the interface.
Apple CEO Tim Cook has for some time thrown cold water on the idea that his company may directly compete with cable operators. “We believe the future of television is apps,” he said during the unveiling of the latest generation Apple TV device a year ago, implying that consumers would build their own lineup of TV services based on the apps available on the device.
However, apps are nothing new. Amazon’s Fire TV has them, and so do Roku’s streaming devices. Apple tried to differentiate itself from the competition with Siri-powered voice search, allowing consumers to search for a show, a movie or even an actor, and then quickly launch a stream.
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With the newly reported guide, Apple could aim one step further. Instead of forcing users to actively seek out content, a guide could list shows and movies by categories, based on personalization, or even in a time-based grid.
Sounds familiar? Sure it does. The grid has been a staple of cable boxes for decades. A number of streaming devices have tried to iterate on the idea in recent years as well, prompting some industry insiders to chuckle when they heard about Apple’s plans.
“That’s a really nifty idea,” jokingly tweeted Gilles BianRosa, the CEO of Fan TV, which was acquired by Rovi in late 2014. Fan TV has been developing apps for mobile and TV-connected devices that aggregate shows from different online video providers for years.
Roku has started to go down this route as well with a feed of program recommendations, as well as universal search across multiple services. Google’s Android TV devices have for some time shown content from multiple services on its home screen. And a number of TV manufacturers and pay TV operators have been experimenting with various ways of integrating linear and on-demand programming.
All of these approaches have shown that program guides for online content can be a good idea in theory — but in practice, they rarely work. That’s in part because they mix apples with oranges. Viewers go to a live sports streaming app for very different reasons than to Netflix, and short-form content doesn’t easily mix with full-length movies.
Personalization can also quickly become a nightmare in a multi-family household, and too much of a focus on content recommendations seems to largely miss the point in a binge-watching world: More often than not, people do know what they want to watch, and just want to access it as quickly as possible.
What’s more, cross-app aggregation efforts keep running into a powerful adversary: the app publishers themselves. Content providers in need for an audience will gladly hand over the keys to their kingdom to Apple, but the big guys are very protective of their assets.
Netflix, for example, has been spending many millions to optimize its in-app experience, from recommendation engines to the number of seconds it takes before the next episode of a show automatically starts playing. That’s because Netflix wants you to keep watching “Orange is the New Black,” and not switch over to some Hulu show that may get recommended by a third-party guide.
Netflix went as far as to shut down its public API in late 2014, cutting off third-party developers from accessing its catalog data. The company is still delivering data to a select number of partners, but tightly controls their use of this data — and it won’t give Apple free rein just to make Apple TV stand out from the crowd.