Point One Better

Yesterday, Apple dropped a slew of physical products, and software updates. One of the updates was for tvOS 9.1. Like the update from 9.0 to 9.0.1, this update offered no release notes. Unlike that update, this one did include features that many felt were missing from the initial Apple TV release. The Apple TV now supports the Remote app for iOS, and Siri support is available for Music.

Remote App

For me, the Apple TV was recognized by the Remote app on my iPhone 6 and I was able to use direction, menu, play/pause, and —most important of all— the iPhone’s virtual keyboard. This does not cover the full range of features that the Siri Remote can handle, and there are interface bits that the 4th generation Apple TV does not support (the options element does nothing).

There was no update at all to the Remote app. Not even for branding. As Robb Lewis pointed out on Twitter, this is rather absurd and unhelpful. Instructions for pairing are different for the fourth generation, and the icon for iTunes is even 3 years-old.

Curiously, I didn’t have to pair mine, it just worked. When I went to check the remote settings (“Settings” -> “Remotes and Devices” -> “Other Devices” -> “Remote App”) it displayed the text “Pairable Devices” and a little spinner next to it. No listing for a paired device. To test if this was some weird fluke, I hit “Edit” in the app and removed all the entries, except one Apple TV entry that was greyed out. That undeletable Apple TV still worked as a remote, and I saw my iPhone listed under pairable devices on the TV. When I pair it, it adds another Apple TV icon. That means I have one “Paired Device” listing, and two icons that launch functional remotes. If I hit “Edit” again, there’s still an Apple TV I can’t delete. If I go to “Paired Devices” and delete the iPhone listed there, it removes one of the Apple TV icons, but the remaining one launches to a blank, white screen. If I pair them, I get two icons back. This is pretty perplexing, particularly if you are a first time user that thought you needed to pair it.

Also, since it’s not an updated Remote app, there are several things it can’t do that your Siri Remote can do:

  • Use Siri to do searches or control the TV.
  • Scrub timelines.
  • Flick through lists.
  • Scrub.
  • Control the volume through HDMI-CEC
  • Use the iPhone in a game that does not implement it’s own convoluted game pairing setup (Crossy Road, for example).

There’s a degree of overlap between the Siri Remote and an iPhone that made it very strange for Apple not to have supported the iPhone — their most popular, profitable product — as an input device when designing and launching the Apple TV.

This is when Eddy Cue dropped a bombshell on John Paczkowski at BuzzFeed News:

“We’re working on a new Apple TV remote app that will give you the full functionality of the Siri Remote on your iPhone,” Cue said. “We’re hoping to ship that in the first half of next year.”

That is a horse of a different color. Was this never part of the plan for the full product? If it was part of the plan, why was it never mentioned before now? Why mention it half a year from the release of the app instead of at the unveiling?

Siri Search for Music

This works even if you are not an Apple Music subscriber, but it can do weird, and unexpected things. Particularly when you compare it to what the text based search does, or when you compare it to what Siri does on iOS. Jason Snell made these observations as well. Since so much of Siri is really on datacenter servers, I was confused why the same hooks for iOS were absent from tvOS when the TV shipped. How Siri and Music worked together was mostly a known quantity for months prior to the TV shipping too.

Query Comparison:

  • “Video killed the radio star”
    • iOS Siri: “Here’s what I found on the web for ‘Video killed the radio star’:” (“Top Hit” is a link to the iTunes store for “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles.)
    • tvOS Siri: “Hmm, I’m not finding anything for ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’”
  • “Play video killed the radio star”
    • iOS Siri: “Sorry, I can’t play videos.”
    • tvOS Siri: ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’
  • “Play total recall soundtrack”
    • iOS Siri: “Here’s ‘Skyfall’ by Adele”
    • tvOS Siri: ‘Total Recall (The Deluxe Edition) [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack]’
  • “Play total”
    • iOS Siri: ‘Total Recall (The Deluxe Edition) [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack]’
    • tvOS Siri: “Playing album ‘Total Recall (The Deluxe Edition) [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack]’
  • “Play star trek soundtrack”
    • iOS Siri: ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)’
    • tvOS Siri: ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)’
  • “Play star trek the motion picture soundtrack”
    • iOS Siri: ‘Star Trek The Motion Picture (20th Anniversary Collectors’ Edition)’
    • tvOS Siri: ‘Star Trek The Motion Picture (20th Anniversary Collectors’ Edition)’
  • “Play star trek six the undiscovered country”
    • iOS Siri: “I found this on the web for you…”
    • tvOS Siri: Search results page for versions of the film to buy or rent.
  • “Play star trek six the undiscovered country soundtrack”
    • iOS Siri: ‘Star Trek IV: The Undiscovered Country (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)’
    • tvOS Siri: ‘Star Trek IV: The Undiscovered Country (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)’
  • “Play Alan Menken”
    • iOS Siri: “I don’t see Alan Menken in your collection, shall I play Alan Menken radio?”
    • tvOS: “Sorry I couldn’t find ‘Alan Menken’ in your music.”
  • “Play Jerry Goldsmith”
    • iOS Siri: ‘Star Trek: Insurrection (Music From the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) — Children’s Story’
    • tvOS Siri: ‘Alien — Acid Test’

It’s kind of weird to think about how Siri handles the same question differently depending on the device you’re asking on. iOS doesn’t have a unified video search page, and tvOS doesn’t have a web browser fallback. They both have radio, but only one prompts to see if you want the radio. (Also, both were wrong about Alan Menken, I was literally looking right at ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls’ when I asked.)

Titles with keywords like ‘video’ also throw it off in really surprising ways on both platforms. If I was on the Apple TV team, the very first thing I would do is make sure that Buggles song worked. That’s the team anthem.

Still No Backup and Restore

I’m getting a little concerned about the lack of these two very important features. Not because I want to restore my device from a backup, but because that sort of thing happens. As I was downloading the update I wondered if I’d have to start over if there was a failure in the installation. It’s not that I have a lot of irreplaceable material on my device, but I do have it set up in a specific way, with apps logins, and settings, and I would like to not redo all that in the event of an emergency. This device’s state needs to be preserved somewhere, preferably before the next Apple TV hardware ships and people set it all up from scratch.

All the other issues regarding integration with Apple services, logins, etc. all still stand. Shipping with these things does improve the experience, but this still isn’t a fully formed device with a clear vision.

Dropped For Time

Jon Gruber interprets Apple’s opaque 9.1 release as intentional tardiness.

I think it’s a safe bet these were things that were planned for the new Apple TV all along, but simply were dropped for the 9.0 release because they ran out of time.

I don’t see anything to indicate they ever intended to ship support for the Remote app. An Apple representative flatly told Jason Snell that the Remote app would not work with the new Apple TV, no elaboration provided. No “coming soon” featured. However, Eddy Cue gave that interview to John Paczkowski and teased a new, better Remote app. That had never been mentioned before, and no official announcement exists other than what Eddy Cue just said.

Something doesn’t sit right with me about the time-crunch narrative either. Sure, they obviously seem to have rushed this out the door, but that doesn’t mean it needed to be rushed out the door. This was not on a yearly update cycle. No service was announced to launch with it. Eddy Cue seems intent on pushing people to make their own apps, rather than offering up any over-the-top service indications. No other product requires an Apple TV, let alone this specific model.

What started the crunch time that they couldn’t meet? What were the goals they didn’t meet, and are still trying to meet — other than a completely new Remote app? The parts that have been released in 9.1 have bugs, and seem unfinished, are they going to be “good enough” so other things can be added, or will they be improved at the expense of adding more? I could go on.

I’m left with more questions than answers every time there’s an update.

2015-12-09 08:30:00

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