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Apple Loses Innovation Edge in Video; Now Amazon Takes the Lead

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The most-quoted passage of Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography—at least the one most quoted in our industry—has the Apple leader saying he’d “figured out” television. Was it a technical solution? A design innovation? A new way to process or watch content? Isaacson didn’t say, presumably because he was too devoted to Apple to include anything that might give competitors an edge.

You couldn’t help but wonder, though, if Jobs had passed his insights on to Tim Cook or anyone else at Apple. If he had, Cook and the rest of the team at Apple clearly haven’t figured out how to implement them. With the announcement of the new Apple TV in September, you might have heard Jobs rolling over in his grave. Or you would have, if the device had given him any reason to get excited.

Goodness knows nobody was talking about it at this year’s IBC, the annual gathering of broadcast and OTT vendors, customers, and pundits in Amsterdam. I brought it up with every one of the dozens of people I spoke to, and only one person appeared genuinely excited about it—and that was because he’s not only an Apple fanboy but a devoted Plex user, and he’s now anticipating a Plex app for the Apple TV. (Let’s hope it’s easier to use and works better than the current version of Plex, but that’s another topic.)

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the new Apple TV; it looks like a serviceable connected device that continues Apple’s tradition of trying to improve on the ideas and innovations of others. But unlike Apple toys of the past—the iPod and almost every iteration of the iPhone, especially—there doesn’t appear to be anything about the Apple TV that’s significantly better than any of its competitors.

If not for HLS, Apple would be almost irrelevant to the world of streaming video. As it is, the company’s commitment to its delivery protocol—and continued absence from patent pools and standards organizations that are pushing alternatives—is the only reason anyone who isn’t a complete fanboy really cares much anymore.

For a company that is truly innovating, you only need to look at Amazon, which is outdoing Apple at the very things that once distinguished Apple from its competitors. Amazon Video recently dropped “Instant” from its name, but as user experience becomes more of a differentiator, perhaps it shouldn’t have.

In my experience—anecdotal, but corroborated—Amazon Video titles rented on a Roku or the exceptionally responsive Amazon Fire begin playback more quickly, and sustain higher quality throughout, than do movies purchased or rented from iTunes on the Apple TV. Sometimes, the difference is exceptional; I stopped buying from iTunes after the third or fourth time I made a purchase only to be told that my movie would begin in several hours. Once I even received the friendly notice that “your movie will begin in 17 hours and 43 minutes.”

Sure, I could go into the settings on my Apple TV and change my preferred quality from HD to SD, but Amazon simply gives viewers the warning that if bandwidth isn’t sufficient (and the Wi-Fi in my house is plenty fast, for what it’s worth), it will throttle down from HD to SD on its own.

Amazon’s most notable innovation on the consumer side (pundits have already dissected the Amazon Web Services purchase of Elemental Technologies for a reported $500 million) was its announcement in September that it would begin to allow downloading of all Prime Video content, meaning that if you wanted to take a movie or TV series—even Prime’s HBO catalog—on your device for offline viewing, you could. Before leaving for Amsterdam, I downloaded five movies and 16 half-hour TV episodes—roughly 14 hours of video—onto my iPhone 6. It all looked great, and it only took up 7.8 GB of storage.

That’s the kind of user-friendly feature with which Apple used to lead the way, but the likes of which we haven’t seen from them, at least on the video front, in a long time. On the whole, I still prefer most of Apple’s hardware to the competitors, but on the connected video front, Amazon is winning the race.

This article appears in the October 2015 issue of Streaming Media magazine as “How Far Apple Has Fallen.”

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