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Apple TV Plus is still looking for its big win

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With a $6 billion content budget, Hollywood’s biggest names, and hundreds of millions of potential customers, Apple TV Plus launched in November 2019 with an ambitious goal: create Apple’s own HBO. But a little over six months later, Apple TV Plus is barely a part of the streaming conversation.

Now should be Apple’s time to shine. The company is gifting subscriptions to practically anyone with an Apple device, and the entire world is stuck at home during a global pandemic with nothing to do but watch TV. The service is filled with high-profile names like Oprah Winfrey, Jason Momoa, and Jennifer Aniston, and it just debuted a new series starring Chris Evans.

Most signs indicate Apple TV Plus is off to a slow start, though. While that’s to be expected for a brand-new service that’s just building its library of shows and movies, it suggests Apple could have an even tougher time six months from now when those free trials start to run out.

Interest in Apple’s shows has mostly trended down. Google Trends data between the time the service launched and now shows only a few upticks in search interest, with engagement mostly fading. The Morning Show won a couple of awards, and Mythic Quest was met with terrific reviews, but dozens of original titles later, it’s not clear that people are opening the app on a regular basis.

We don’t actually know how many people are using Apple TV Plus since Apple executives have yet to dole out subscriber numbers. Executives are pleased with the results so far, according to The Hollywood Reporter, but being pleased doesn’t equate to having a figure worth bragging about. That’s in stark contrast to Disney, which launched its Disney Plus streaming service two weeks after Apple and boasts more than 55 million subscribers.

On one hand, Apple’s silence isn’t that strange: Apple doesn’t always release numbers for its products. The company notably stopped announcing how many phones and tablets it was selling a few years ago, which critics pointed out occurred at the same time sales of iPhones started to slip. Apple hasn’t announced subscriber figures for Apple Arcade either, and Apple Music numbers have mainly come in news reports. Another school of thought, however, is that companies tend to share numbers when they have something to brag about. Disney shared its first-day numbers after hitting 10 million and then made another announcement outside of its regular earnings calls to declare that the service hit 50 million subscribers.

Without official numbers, the industry is left to rely on third-party data and leaks. Recent estimates from Ampere Analysis suggested that Apple has approximately 33 million TV Plus subscribers, but a new Bloomberg article cites a person with knowledge claiming the number is closer to 10 million. To put that into context, HBO Now has just under 10 million subscribers, and Hulu has just over 32 million subscribers, but both are available exclusively in the United States. To compare, Apple TV Plus is available in more than 100 countries.

Compared to the current competition, Apple TV Plus’ numbers aren’t abysmal, but they come with a significant caveat: it’s likely most of them aren’t paying. Apple is basically giving away a year of free service to anyone with a new Apple product. That’s hundreds of millions of potential customers. (Apple sold $28.96 billion worth of iPhones in its most recent quarter alone.) If only 10 to 33 million people are signing up, and approximately half are actively using it, according to Bloomberg, that’s a large customer base that could sign up but won’t.

“What’s really hard about Apple TV Plus is that virtually 100 percent of the subscribers are [on] annual free trials,” Rameez Tase, CEO of data firm Antenna, told The Verge. “It’s very hard to gauge what that subscriber actually means. Because when you place it next to any other service, which has predominantly paid subscribers, the numbers don’t look that bad. But no one’s paying for Apple TV Plus.”

Whether those customers hang around come November 1st, when the one-year free trial period ends for the service’s earliest customers, is where Apple’s dilemma really begins, Tase said. Hulu’s $0.99 Black Friday deal led to a growth in subscribers for the platform, but when the $0.99 period was over, more than 50 percent of people canceled their service, according to Tase. Will people currently spending $0 on Apple TV Plus start spending $4.99 a month?

“I think the argument is: look at the total signups,” Tase said. “Sure, maybe no one sticks around. But if they do — or even a decent portion of them do — it can kind of overnight become a large SVOD company.”

While every streaming service is seeing an uptick in viewing time and subscribers, Apple TV Plus is the only service that saw a substantially smaller percentage of sign-ups in April compared to Disney Plus, Amazon Prime, and Netflix. Apple TV Plus’ issues aren’t too dissimilar to Quibi’s, another streaming service trying to find its place. There isn’t enough to keep people coming back day after day, and, of the offerings available to subscribers, very few are provoking conversation.

The Morning Show is arguably the only series that made a splash with mainstream audiences. That alone puts Apple at a slower start than competitors: Netflix’s first six months of original programming produced House of Cards, Hemlock Grove, and Orange Is the New Black, with two of those series turning into huge hits. Disney Plus has only produced one major hit so far, but The Mandalorian became the center of conversation for eight consistent weeks, dominating pop culture.

Comparing Apple TV Plus’ slimmer offerings to streamers like Netflix and traditional networks like FX and HBO isn’t entirely fair. It took years for both networks to become the powerhouses they are today. HBO started experimenting with original programming in the years leading up to the ‘90s, but it wasn’t until The Larry Sanders Show in 1992 that people took notice. Similarly, FX was predominantly known for running reruns and canceled one-season shows until The Shield, Rescue Me, and Nip/Tuck a decade after the network launched.

That meant, though, that subscribers had plenty to watch while those networks built out their original content. HBO and FX made their entrance playing old movies and classic sitcoms they syndicated. Netflix and Hulu built their initial subscriber bases through offering an exhaustive amount of licensed TV shows and movies people wanted to watch. Apple TV Plus subscribers, on the other hand, will soon be asked to pay $5 per month for just a small slate of originals. Apple is now thinking of doing something similar to those other networks, according to a new report from Bloomberg that suggests the company is looking to acquire old TV shows and movies.

It’s impossible to label Apple TV Plus anything concrete six months in for all these reasons and more. It’s not boasting Disney Plus numbers — a streaming service that saw 10 million subscribers on its first day, thanks to the strength of its beloved back catalog — but Apple TV Plus doesn’t necessarily have to. TV Plus was always an addition to Apple’s overall services sector, which saw a record 17 percent growth last quarter. Apple TV Plus doesn’t have the same pressures on it as a Netflix or Disney Plus; scaling subscriber growth is core to the service’s principal revenue structure, but Apple TV Plus is a way to keep people inside Apple’s overall ecosystem.

Still, Tase argues that judging by Apple’s own commitment to TV Plus (including spending $70 million to acquire Tom Hanks’ next movie), people shouldn’t count it out completely yet.

“Look at the talent and money Apple is continuously pouring into TV Plus content,” Tase said. “Maybe content is not their core competency and, you know, maybe they’ll never get it right. But maybe, who knows, maybe they will too, right?”

Apple

You can no longer subscribe to HBO via Apple TV Channels

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HBO is no longer available as an Apple TV Channel for people who want to subscribe to it though the Apple TV app (via 9to5Mac). The change follows today’s launch of the new streaming service HBO Max.

Apple TV Channels first launched last year as a way to watch content from many different service providers all in one app, meaning you wouldn’t have to bounce around between different third-party apps to watch different content. Now, though, it seems HBO wants to push users to watch HBO Max content on the HBO Max app instead of through Apple’s.

If you already subscribe to HBO through Apple TV’s Channels, you can apparently still see it in the Apple TV app, but it won’t be updated to include content that’s exclusive to HBO Max, according to 9to5Mac. You also have free access to HBO Max thanks to a deal that was struck between Apple and WarnerMedia last month. When that deal was struck, Deadline reported that HBO Max would be integrated into the Apple TV app, but it appears that hasn’t happened yet.

There are a number of ways to access HBO Max, and my colleague Chaim Gartenberg has put together a handy guide on how you can stream HBO Max and how to know if you may already have access to it without needing to pay.

If you want to subscribe to HBO Max through Amazon’s Prime Video Channels portal, however, you can’t just yet. The issue, it seems, is due to contract negotiations, reports The Wall Street Journal, which is why the HBO Max app is not available on either Amazon Fire devices or Roku ones. Amazon is blaming the dispute on AT&T, which owns HBO Max operator WarnerMedia, in a statement provided to The Verge:

With a seamless customer experience, nearly 5 million HBO streamers currently access their subscription through Amazon’s Prime Video Channels. Unfortunately, with the launch of HBO Max, AT&T is choosing to deny these loyal HBO customers access to the expanded catalog. We believe that if you’re paying for HBO, you’re entitled to the new programming through the method you’re already using. That’s just good customer service and that’s a priority for us.

WarnerMedia defended itself in this statement given to Engadget:

We are thrilled that HBO Max is widely available at launch to customers through a variety of devices and distribution partners as well as HBOMax.com. Our goal is to make HBO Max available on every platform possible to as many viewers globally as possible so they can enjoy beloved shows from HBO, the Warner Bros. movie and TV library and a diversity of hit programming exclusive to HBO Max. We look forward to reaching agreements with the few outstanding distribution partners left, including with Amazon and on par with how they provide customers access to Netflix, Disney+ and Hulu on Fire devices.

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Apple TV Plus acquires past Fraggle Rock seasons ahead of reboot

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Apple is acquiring Fraggle Rock’s past TV seasons ahead of a new reboot set to land on Apple TV Plus, signaling a potential strategy shift for a service that has thus far relied entirely on original content.

The new Fraggle Rock reboot is being created in partnership with the Jim Henson Company and will bring back characters from the original series “for new songs and adventures, with the same spirit as the classic,” according to a press release. Apple doesn’t mention the licensing deal, but all 96 episodes that aired between 1983 and 1987 are currently available to stream. Vulture first reported the addition on Tuesday.

A Fraggle Rock reboot isn’t too surprising; Apple cited the “global fandom” around its Fraggle Rock: Rock On! shorts as proof that people were interested in the show, but that’s hard to prove without viewership numbers, which Apple hasn’t released. Still, having a show with a recognizable name like Fraggle Rock as part of its entertainment lineup makes sense for Apple.

Acquiring the rights to past seasons also makes sense. Apple bringing licensed content onto Apple TV Plus — something the company adamantly didn’t incorporate into its original strategy — could help solve some of the streaming service’s issues. Having that additional content gives people more of a reason to stick around instead of relying on a sparser offering built on the backs of originals. Plus, being able to bring in recognizable franchise names helps Apple build its IP offerings, similar to what HBO Max, Disney Plus, and Peacock are doing.

The question is how far Apple’s acquisition strategy will go. Recent reports from Bloomberg and Vulture suggest that Apple is interested in acquiring titles that directly relate to new projects it’s developing. As Josef Adalian reported in Vulture this week, with big studios like Disney, WarnerMedia, and NBCUniversal “looking to keep their best and biggest titles for their own streaming platforms, there simply aren’t enough great titles around” to justify making a play for a traditional library of licensed content. Instead, it makes more sense for Apple to look at acquiring full libraries for shows it wants to reboot — keeping everything in one place makes for a better consumer experience.

“So were Apple to end up doing a deal for the rights to the James Bond franchise (something which has been buzzed about since at least 2017), the company would also likely try to get the back library of Bond films so it could market itself as the home for all things 007,” Adalian wrote.

Apple, like all streaming players right now, is making licensing bets where they make sense. Apple isn’t about to try to use Netflix’s licensing strategy, which helped the general entertainment platform catapult into a behemoth, for its own gain. As Apple figures out which properties make the most sense to either resurrect, remake, or reboot, building out full collections is a smart play.

Apple isn’t calling this a strategy shift — but it is one. Apple TV Plus launched without any licensed content, and CEO Tim Cook reiterated at a shareholders meeting in February that Apple TV Plus wasn’t about hosting older series or films, specifically saying that’s “not what ‌Apple TV‌ Plus is about.” Cook restated that Apple TV Plus is “about original programming.”

“It doesn’t feel right for Apple to just go out and take a rerun,” Cook said.

Now the caveat seems to be if that original programming is based on an older series or movie, it’s likely that collection will wind up on Apple TV Plus.

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Apple’s butterfly keyboard failed by prioritizing form over function

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In today’s digital age, it sometimes feels like hardware has taken a back seat to the software that drives our devices. Button of the Month will look at what some of those buttons and switches are like on devices old and new to appreciate how we interact with them on a physical, tactile level.

Apple’s butterfly keyboard switches are some of the worst buttons to grace a modern device: unreliable, prone to breaking after coming in contact with a tiny bit of dust or grime, and incredibly difficult and expensive to replace.

But the deeper issue isn’t that the butterfly switches often break; it’s the flawed design goals that led Apple to make a bad button in the first place. Apple chose to make an entire keyboard full of buttons that resulted in a more aesthetically pleasing design with shorter travel and a thinner overall laptop, rather than making ones that are mechanically functional. And it nearly wrecked an entire generation of Apple’s laptops.

Most of our technology today is heavily digital, with touchscreens and software offering limitless possibilities for how we interact. That digital philosophy is the reason we have giant glass slabs as smartphones, the controversial Touch Bar on Apple’s MacBook Pros, or the customizable buttons of the Elgato Stream Deck.

When things are kept as physical buttons, it tends to be because there’s a very good reason for it — things like power buttons on phones, which need to work at a higher interaction level to enable the use of all those digital buttons; volume controls on headphones, where there’s a need to interact with something that you can’t see; or video game controllers, which demand fast and accurate commands while your attention is devoted to the action on-screen.

And of course, there’s the laptop keyboard, where the ability to type well is paramount. Digital keyboards have these issues with accuracy or correctly registering inputs all the time. It’s why our iPhones and Android phones have so many keyboard options, with different predictive text capabilities to try to smooth out those bumps. Physical keyboards aren’t supposed to have the same issue, though. When you press a key, you don’t just expect it to have pressed down; you rely on the fact that it did, without having to take time or effort to check and confirm that that’s the case.

In conflict with that is the decades-long trend in consumer technology that prizes making gadgets simpler, sleeker, and thinner at the expense of functionality. The ramifications of this trend are many and ongoing, and they impact everything from battery life to whether we have 3.5mm headphone jacks on our phones. Nearly every company in the business has followed this trend, but it’s arguably Apple that’s led it with an almost fanatical devotion to making every generation of hardware smaller and lighter than the one before it, sacrificing reliability for style along the way. It’s only in recent years that Apple’s finally started to reverse this trend, with new hardware that better finds the balance between function and form.

Apple isn’t the only company that’s fallen into this trap, however. We’ve seen plenty of examples over the years of devices that try to minimize physical hardware buttons for thinner devices or more customizable software keys. Any number of companies have tried, from Microsoft’s original Surface keyboard covers to Lenovo’s digital and E Ink Yoga Books to Apple’s digital iPad keyboard.

But the lesson that these companies keep learning is that it rarely works. Microsoft has since shifted its Surface covers to mechanical keyboards; Lenovo’s upcoming foldable laptop includes a physical keyboard accessory to type with; and Apple now offers a $350 keyboard case that’s the crown jewel of its current iPad Pro lineups. They’re thicker and heavier solutions than their predecessors, but they’re far more reliable.

Apple’s issue cuts far deeper than those other examples, though, because the butterfly keyboards weren’t on an experimental side project or a keyboard case: it gambled on a key component on its entire lineup of flagship laptops.

Maybe the company thought the failure rate was worth the risk. (After all, Apple spent years iterating on the design and shipped multiple generations of the butterfly switch before throwing in the towel.) But keyboards are an integral part of any computer, at least for how we use them now. If you can’t rely on them to input the text you typed accurately every time, any gains in aesthetics or thinness render them less useful than even a touchscreen laptop.

Good buttons can sometimes make up for bad software, but a bad button — a crumbling bridge between the user and the software — is far harder to make up for. The old-new scissor-switches aren’t my favorite to type on; while others may disagree, I find the butterfly switches far crisper and snappier to use than the softer, mushier scissor-switch. But the scissors are reliable in a way that the butterfly switches aren’t, and that makes all the difference.

It’s a balance Apple is continuing to find. The Touch Bar is a similar idea, replacing mechanical keys with software replacements that promise far more utility at the expense of physical reliability. Maybe it’ll work better: function keys aren’t as critical to daily laptop use, and maybe the benefits outweigh the risks. But Apple’s already had to fine-tune that adjustment, adding a physical Esc key to its newer Touch Bar models that the old ones lacked because some things just can’t rely on software.

The story of Apple’s reviled keyboards isn’t really about the quality of the physical part, as much as it is Apple’s motivation in trying to make the butterfly switches or the Touch Bar or any of these replacement keyboards work at all. It’s about how a single design decision can ripple out and sour the user experience for an entire product, across whole generations of hardware. A sort of… butterfly effect.

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