Given the time and attention, Amazon could have wowed the world with a best-in-class tvOS app. Instead, it looks like they dragged their feet and pushed out the laziest cross-platform port possible. And that's a shame.
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 Amazon.com. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.