Search Me, Search Me Not: Apple TV And The Battle For Screen Time

At $149, it’s hard to say at this point whether the new Apple TV will gain much traction against less expensive competitors that do substantially the same things. But as I and others have noted, Apple TV will have at least one potentially compelling feature the others don’t have: universal content search via Siri, with deep links into individual apps.

Users will be able to search for titles, actors, directors and other criteria by voice command across multiple apps and then choose which service to use to watch the content you were looking for. As confirmed by Apple CEO Tim Cook in a recent interview with BuzzFeed, Apple TV will be able to tell you with a single search that the hulu_nocbs-1first three seasons of a five-season series you’re binge-watching are available on Netflix while the fourth season is available for purchase through iTunes and the fifth is available only on HBO, a provide you deep links to each without having to go through any particular service’s native UI.

Initially, universal search will only be available with iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, Showtime and HBO. But in the same BuzzFeed interview, Cook said Apple will open an API for any developer that wants their app included in Universal search.

“[W]e’ll have five major inputs into universal search initially. But we’re also opening an API, so that others can join in,” Cook said. “I think that many, many people will want to be in that search.”

No doubt they will, and it could create another powerful dynamic to boost the prospects of Apple TV.

As it happens, Netflix, Hulu, Showtime and HBO, would no doubt prefer not to have their catalogs included in universal search. All are paid subscription services whose value proposition lies in providing their subscribers with a rich and diverse slate of programming and sophisticated native discovery tools. None of them depend on search to drive traffic to their sites, and none have any interest in helping their users find content in other services. Just last year, in fact, Netflix killed its public API so that third-party discovery apps can no longer index its catalog.

Apple is able to do it because of the way Siri-powered Proactive search works within iOS 9. It basically doesn’t need Netflix’s API to see what’s in its app.

As Cook notes, however, there are plenty of other developers out there who would no doubt love to see their apps on the same playing field as Netflix, Hulu and HBO. And they’ll be scrambling to get in on the universal search action.

The more fourth-generation Apple TVs in use, moreover, the more valuable showing up in those search results will become to developers. Conversely, the more apps that become searchable with Siri the less likely users will be to rely on any one app’s native UI. Apple will have usurped the UI.

By opening an API, and letting developers do the work of integrating with universal search, Apple is setting up a kind of land rush among developers to make sure their content gets surfaced on Apple TV. It’s not hard to imagine developers and even rights owners eventually being willing to pay in one form or another for visibility on Apple TV, just as the record labels were once willing to pay for placement on the iTunes home page.

If the numbers are there, in other words, the Apple TV UI could itself become a valuable platform for promoting content or even launching new channels, apart from its utility to consumers.

For that to happen, though, Apple first has to convince enough consumers to pay $150 for an Apple TV instead of $35 for a Chromecast.