Amazon made a bad Prime Video port for Apple TV and it needs a do-over

Amazon Prime Video has, at long last, come to Apple TV. But after years of withholding the product and months of waiting after it was originally announced, customers of the service weren't treated to an amazing tvOS video experience. Instead, we've been given what appears to be a rushed and rather callous port of Amazon's (OpenGL-based?) cross-platform app. One that feels lowest common denominator, designed to run on any and all boxes and panels, utterly alien to tvOS and off-putting to the typically fussy, highly-engaged users who own an Apple TV.

How in the hell did we get here?

Halt and catch Fire

Amazon Prime Video launched as Amazon Unbox back in September of 2006. The same year Apple originally announced the OS X-lobo'd product then known as iTV but which would ship as Apple TV in 2007.

In March of 2012 Apple TV was rebooted with a new, iOS-based box and in addition to iTunes content, included third-party apps. At least, partner apps that used the Apple TV markup language-based templates. That included Netflix streaming but not Amazon Instant Video.

Over the next few years, more and more services would partner up and come online. But still not Amazon. Given the variety, it seems likely Apple would have welcomed Amazon to the fold. Amazon is a retailer at heart, though, and offering the convenience of easy streaming to existing customers might not have been enough for the company — not if they couldn't sell those customers more.

In April of 2014, Amazon launched its own Fire TV streaming box, which, of course, had Amazon Prime Video content. Over the years, It also made versions for the Roku box and game consoles including Xbox, Nintendo, and PlayStation..

September of 2015 saw Apple TV rebooted again. The box got a little bigger, the platform got rebranded as tvOS, and Apple launched an App Store to go with it. Previous partner apps like Netflix had over seven months to build new, tvOS apps, or to stick with TVML apps. When Apple TV and tvOS shipped, almost every major video app in the U.S. was there. Except for Amazon Prime Video.

Even when Amazon Prime Video went global in 2016, it wouldn't go to Apple TV.

Given how many video apps showed up on tvOS, it again seems like there was no issue on Apple's end. It was all about Amazon.

Amazon did create an Amazon Prime Video app for iOS, so Apple TV owners could AirPlay from their iPhone or iPad to watch Prime Video on Apple TV. But it took two devices instead of one and introduced complexity. It wasn't the experience any Amazon Prime Video customer wanted.

Then something utterly confounding happened. At the 2016 Code Conference, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said:

We want our player, our Prime Video player, to be on the device, and we want it to be on the device with acceptable business terms. And if you can't, then we don't want to sell it to our customers, because they're going to be buying it thinking they can watch Prime Video and then they're going to be disappointed. And they're going to return it."

Bezos refused to make Amazon Prime Video for Apple TV and then, because Apple TV didn't have Amazon Prime Video, Bezos refused to sell Apple TV on It's a move he and the company would repeat with Google and its video devices, including Chromecast.

The move probably cost Apple and Google some sales from Amazon's most devoted customers, but it cost Amazon's most devoted customers considerable inconvenience as well.

Minimal portable product

At Apple's annual September event in 2016, Tim Cook announced a 4K HDR version of Apple TV. Along with it:

Amazon is coming to the TV app and all Apple TVs later this year with Amazon Prime Video.

No specific date was provided. Based on the speed at which every other video streaming service had managed to deploy a tvOS app, and given Amazon had access to the tvOS SDK for well over a year by then, many assumed it would day-and-date with device launch.

It was not.

September came and went. October and November as well. Rumors flared and went dark. Premiere dates for Amazon Prime Video shows rolled by. Then, finally, in the first week of December, Amazon Prime Video shipped for Apple TV. Much to Amazon's credit, it also shipped in all of the 100 countries in which the service is currently available.

From Apple (opens in new tab):

Starting today, customers around the world can access the Amazon Prime Video app on Apple TV to stream award-winning and critically acclaimed titles including Prime Original Series and Movies

Word spread quickly, excited Apple TV owners who were also customers of the service raced to get it. And then promptly got hit in the eyes by app that was anything but what they'd been waiting for.

See more

John Gruber, writing for Daring Fireball:

I don't know if it's a webview, but if it is, that would have required a special entitlement from Apple because the tvOS SDK does not have a webview.

It's my understanding no such entitlement was granted. But HTML isn't the only way to deploy cross-platform quickly.

See more

If you're willing to give up the higher-level conveniences, Open GL works for a wide variety of platforms as well. At least if you care more about easy porting than you do user experience.

John Gruber again:

I find it hard to believe that getting this custom cross-platform monstrosity running atop tvOS was less work (and would be easier to maintain) than just writing a goddamn native tvOS app. I can see why Amazon doesn't want to create a new app from scratch for every single "smart TV" platform, but Apple TV is a big market.Prime Video is, without question, the worst Apple TV app I have on my Apple TV (taking the crown from Hulu).

I've dealt with Amazon as an author. To say they're savage is an understatement. I know people who have dealt with Amazon as developers on Amazon's Appstore. The ones who had their prices modified — in some cases down to zero — without their consent or approval. I've experienced the network of drivers Amazon has started using to deliver products outside typical shipping channels.

So I'm not shocked to find out Amazon placed almost no value on the user experience of their customers when it came to finally releasing Prime Video on Apple TV. I'm barely surprised.

How else do you explain an app so delayed and yet so rushed that one of the world's leading web companies couldn't even make its sign-in work on one of the world's leading browsers.

See more

I have no doubt there are engineers inside Amazon who would have loved to have made a great tvOS app for Apple TV. Any craftsperson who takes pride in their work would make all the cogent arguments in the world as to why that was the better — ultimately for everyone, including Amazon — approach.

Yet all evidence points to one incontrovertible fact: Amazon didn't give a shit.

American Monsters

To echo Gruber, Amazon Prime Video is the worst app I've ever seen on tvOS. It's so bad, it's been roundly panned by the very people who longed for and wanted to love it. It's embarrassing.

Tthe nice thing about bits is that they can be fixed. Yes, Amazon squandered years and years of time it could have spent releasing and iterating the app like Netflix and so many others did and continue to do. Yes, Amazon has displayed a dismaying amount of pettiness, bullying, and callousness towards potential partners and even its own customers. But it's not too late.

Amazon Prime Customers are currently stuck with the terrible port Amazon finally decided to excrete out onto Apple TV. If Amazon listens to the feedback, though, and thinks about what's really in the best interest of its customers — customers Amazon wants and needs to continue paying for Prime — then the path forward is clear:

Make Amazon Prime Video for Apple TV 2.0. Make it from scratch. Make it using the tvOS SDK — or TVML at the very least. And make it freaking amazing.

In other words, make it the Amazon Prime for Apple TV app customers deserve.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • Well, some of us assumed Amazon would release a crippled POS just to stick it to Apple. Amazon is also still not selling any Apple TV products as of today. I wonder what that deal with Apple was about.
  • This hurts Amazon more than Apple, given that people will see everything else on their ATV working fine, and then go on Amazon's app and see it working horrible.
  • "app like Netflix" please don't have them copy that friggin auto-play on the browse screen. I want that off on Netflix, not on Amazon too.
  • Still using the Apple TV 3rd gen. That app seems better than the what the 4th gen has. 3rd gen also has my favorite incarnation of the Netflix app. I'm shocked, though. I never thought I would see Amazon Prime Video on the old model. My incentive to upgrade just dropped to zero.
  • It's still light years ahead of any of the iTunes video apps on any platform other than Apple's own ones.
  • Starting to really look at my Prime membership now and if it'll be worth it soon. My spending has greatly declined with the amount of knock off crap that's in there. Even stuff that is branded you have to be careful you don't end up with a counterfeit. Sure it's been convenient but, it's getting out of hand, and this is another notch in that direction. Don't think I'd cancel anytime soon, but really, Amazon needs to pull their heads out of their ****.
  • Almost no one will do that. Everyone is doing everything from Amazon. There few who won't because they love Apple more than Amazon won't hurt then. To big, to strong. Between this and Google YouTube app not doing 4k because Apple won't support the codec it looks like Apple's box isn't worth it. The Nvidia shield had 4k hdr work a great Amazon app and 4k YouTube. Other than iTunes every major streaming thing is there.
  • I was surprised at how bad it was. It’s convention that when swiping through the menu items at the top, it just switches to that screen. This app requires swiping and then clicking. Not a lot of extra work with just a click, but it’s the only app that works that way, which makes it a little confusing initially. The iOS app for Prime Video is pretty terrible too. I much prefer Netflix, but because of exclusive licensing deals, if a show or movie you want is on Prime, you need Prime. If Amazon outbids Netflix, it leaves Netflix and goes to Prime. I guess they don’t need a good customer experience as long as they have the shows and movies that people want, and they pay enough to keep them off Netflix. I wish movies and shows were on every streaming service and they competed on customer experience (similar to music streaming services), but apparently, that’s not going to be how this works.
  • If you want an “app like Netflix” then go to Netflix, simple as that. Hey at least we have an Amazon app now. It took the “Movies Anywhere” app to finally have my Vudu and iTunes movies as cross-platform, cause I’m still not holding my breath on Vudu for Apple TV or iTunes for Roku TV.
  • The Vudu app has been on Apple TV for a few months now. Before Movies Anywhere existed.
  • The app UI froze twice in first 20 minutes of use and required restarting ATV4 to escape.
    Not a great experience.
    One of world's richest 1% can't pay top-flight coders to build a great native ATV app? I'm surprised Apple let Amazon put this in the App store—desperate for ATV sales on Amazon perhaps.
  • Why should they make a better app than what’s on their own devices?
  • I don't know, maybe to get more customers? This will cause a lot of people to drop out from the service altogether, they're not gonna buy a Fire Stick when everything else works fine on their ATV
  • The same folks who did without the ATV app?
    Yea, folks who love amazon prime are suddenly going to leave in droves because the ATV app is less than stellar.
  • If another service offers the same TV/Videos with a better interface, of course you would.
  • I just don't see the point in the apple tv for streaming. Don't all TVs have in built apps for Amazon and Netflix etc? I used to use my xbox for everything but since getting a newer TV (a few years ago), it's just so much easier to just use the TV. Apple TV is great for Apple stuff (Movies I've bought, and the odd casual game and phone/ipad mirroring).
  • And if you want to see an awful 'app' built for another platform, try iTunes for Windows.
  • Last time I used iTunes for Windows it worked fine. In the earlier days it was pretty bad, but not so much now
  • No it’s still pretty bad, still freezes at startup.
  • "Don't all TVs have in built apps for Amazon and Netflix etc?" No. You think all TVs are smart tvs?
  • Most new ones are now, but the software on them is usually complete 💩 so it's still worth buying something like the ATV
  • Maybe in the past, but the smart TV platforms of Panasonic, LG, Samsung and Sony have excellent Netflix and Amazon apps.
  • Netflix and Amazon, sure. But I'm in the UK and many of the UK catch-up services do not work well at all. Channel 4's catchup service doesn't work anymore on our Samsung Smart TV, and others don't always work great. YouTube is the same too, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. The "send to TV" option on the YouTube app works every time on the PS4 version, but it's a hit-and-miss on the Smart TV.
  • It's not that bad. Really. I mean it's not a nirvana of UX bliss, but it's considerably better than some apps I have tried, including many TV network apps, and better than Crave TV app. It's easy to pick a show, it's easy to log in over the browser rather than entering my long password, it's easy to pick subtitles and audio settings, it registers to the TV app itself (something I wish Netflix would do) so I can play things via Siri... It's at least....decent.
  • Decent isn't good enough when you pay $179 for a smart TV box. Two wrongs don't make a right.
  • It is that bad. One of the big oversights is that there's No 5.1 audio support. I subscribe to Showtime through Amazon Prime, and have my video library linked through MoviesAnywhere — all Amazon content is 2-channel stereo only. I agree with the author's opinion that Amazon doesn't give a ****.
  • Has anyone figured out how to get surround sound from this app? When I play Netflix I have surround sound without issues. When I use the Amazon Prime app all I get is 2-ch PCM.
  • ‘If Amazon listens to the feedback, though, and thinks about what's really in the best interest of its customers — customers Amazon wants and needs to continue paying for Prime — then the path forward is clear‘ Wow rene, you really give apple way too much credit if you think because the ATV app is less than stellar, amazon will lose customers. As if we have not been enjoying a great experience with our Roku’s, or Fire TV’s, or smart TV’s, or Xbox’s, or PlayStations, or insert any streaming media box. That soap box of yours is so high, your brain is losing much needed oxygen.
  • But Rene makes sense. If the app works badly, people will consider switching to another service, I know I would
  • The Amazon prime video app is a joke. It lacks support for multiple users. What is part of prime and not part of prime is not clear all the time. I get crazy lag often with the app, having to restart content and no other apps I use have this issue (Netflix, Hulu, Stars, etc.). I seriously question if I will continue Prime next year.
  • Look, I'm not going to complain here; at least we have the app and I can watch The Grand Tour.
  • Amazon has seriously begun to annoy me. Constantly changing prices on Amazon on me. Fake vendors and they do nothing. Using the US postal service to save money and pretty much making it that my 2 day delivery rarely happens now. Their prime video apps need users. What is free and not free is clear as mud at times. The whole Apple TV support, buying them online from Amazon has bee a complete mess. I use the Kindle app on my iPhone/iPad. I am at the point now that if a book is available on iBooks I am buying it there even if it cost more.