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A Conversation about AppleTV

A frustrating conversation with AppleSupport over Twitter DM:

Me: I can't enable Siri on my AppleTV, despite language & locale being set to en-US. Is this because my iTunes Store account is tied to the Italian Store?

@AppleSupport: If your Apple ID is tied to the Italian Store, then Siri won't work for your Apple TV as it's not available in Italy at this time.

Me: Why? The whole OS is in English, and I only want Siri to speak English. Plus it works on iOS; why make tvOS different? It should key off language & locale, not where my credit card bills are sent.

@AppleSupport: If the feature isn't available to a specific country, then any Apple ID connected to the country will not be able to access the feature when it's used on the Apple TV. You can keep an eye on this article to see when Siri will be available for Italy under the 'Here's where you can use Siri' section:

Ugh. This is classic Apple, not giving any explanation.

My assumption is that the limitation is precisely because my Apple ID ties me to the Italian iTunes Store, and to its catalogue. I have complained before about the problems this causes. The way this would affect Siri would be me saying: "Hey Siri, please play The Godfather" and Siri not being able to find it - because in the Italian iTunes Store it’s listed as Il Padrino.

The obvious solution is to let people choose which iTunes Store they want to purchase from, but I suspect this will never happen, for two reasons. One is that Apple is presumably constrained by the licenses from the content owners only to specific countries. In the same way, DVDs (remember DVDs?) were locked to specific regions, and multi-region DVD players were grey-market items.

The other reason is that mine is an edge case, shared only by a relatively small number of expats and other deracinated cosmopolitans. Edge cases that affect Apple employees and their testers get addressed quickly, as John Gruber and Serenity Caldwell discussed referring to the use case of multiple Watches connected to a single iPhone. Anything that does not affect those users? Wait and hope.

We saw the same thing around the initial roll-out of Maps, with high quality data for the Bay Area, and problems elsewhere. The first version of the Watch arguably had the same issue, with one entire physical control dedicated to a feature that was only useful to people all of whose friends were Watch users - not the best idea for a product whose appeal at launch was unclear.

I suppose this is almost the definition of a first-world problem, but it’s still frustrating to me when Apple stumbles on something this easy to fix.2

  1. From that page: "Siri is currently available on Apple TV (4th generation) in these countries and languages: Australia (English), Canada (English, French), Germany (German), France (French), Mexico (Spanish), Netherlands (Dutch), Norway (Norwegian Bokmål), Japan (Japanese), Spain (Spanish), Sweden (Swedish), UK (English), US (English, Spanish)." Seriously? Dutch and Norwegian before Italian? NL population is 16.8 M, NO population is 5 M, and Italy is nearly 60 M - not counting Italian-speaking Switzerland. Maybe there’s less AppleTV penetration, but it’s not exactly a small market, and Siri has been able to speak Italian almost since launch. 

  2. My other pet peeve: the Control Center on iOS should allow users to 3D-Touch the wifi and Bluetooth controls to select networks and devices respectively. Especially for Bluetooth, the extra step of going into Settings > Bluetooth and waiting for the device to connect adds annoyance and friction when I just want to listen to a podcast or some music. 

Nonne videtur

Here's why video doesn't work as a general delivery mechanism for content. So far, it has taken me about twenty five minutes to watch about ten minutes of this video. I also had to find headphones and plug them in, and I had to be somewhere I had the bandwidth and leisure to single-task in this way. None of these are givens.

On the other hand, I can consume (or at least skim) text very rapidly. If I just need to get the gist of a topic or answer one question, text is far and away the most efficient way to do it. There is very little as depressing as finding that the only documentation of how to do something is a twelve-minute out-of-focus howto video, filmed on somebody’s cellphone, narrated in a soporific and near-inaudible drone, and of which I care about precisely five seconds.

If someone sends me a piece of text that looks interesting but that I don’t have time to look at right now, I can easily file it for later. All of my text gets saved to one place - in my case, to Instapaper - and I know that when I open Instapaper, I will have a queue of interesting articles, stories, or whatever to read at my leisure.

Video doesn’t work that way. Sure, both YouTube and Vimeo allow me to save something for later, but only for their own platform, so now I have to remember where I saw something to be able to retrieve it. And that doesn’t even account for media sites like the BBC that insist on reinventing the wheel and using their own video platform1.

Also, no service I know of allows video to be saved offline2, so I still have to be online to see my queue of videos that I saved for later. No watching in the plane for me! That’s unfortunate because it’s one of the places where I can really power through my Instapaper queue.


(me, trying to consume some Branded Content)

That’s not to say I don’t watch video - I do. One of the reasons I own an Apple TV, and have done since the Apple TV 2, is to watch YouTube. There is a ton of high-quality content out there. I’m a car nut, so I have subscriptions to channels like Petrolicious, The Smoking Tire, and Jay Leno’s Garage. The thing is, though, I treat these like watching TV: on the couch, often with a beer in hand, and with a reasonable hope of not being interrupted.

Speaking of interruptions, let’s talk about ads. I have complained before about intrusive video ads interrupting me when I’m reading - but what about intrusive video ads interrupting me when I’m trying to watch video?

Most videos these days have a pre-roll ad - those ads that you can (usually) skip after five seconds3 to get to what you actually wanted to watch. In the context of the ten-minutes-plus duration of the sorts of videos I choose to watch, that’s a minor annoyance at most. On the other hand, if I click on a link from some random site, so with low investment, and the first thing I see is a thirty-second unskippable ad? I’m out of there.

Advertising in text on the other hand can be4 pretty subtle, and if I see something in the sidebar that looks interesting out of the corner of my eye, I can finish what I’m doing and get back to it. In “snackable" social media formats like Twitter or Facebook, ads are even less intrusive, scrolling by in your timeline. I have followed sponsored links from both, whereas I have never interacted in any way with a video ad, except to close it.

In summary

I truly hope that the current predictions of “video everywhere!!1!eleventy" are just the latest helium-infused bout of hype. The noisy, single-threaded future that Facebook et al want to usher us into is not somewhere I want to live. And that goes double for AR - if you think I don’t like the bandwidth requirements and the need for headphones of flat video, imagine if you will the hatred I feel for goggles and clogging my downstream pipe for minutes on end for some show-off animation. No, thank you.

Image by Uğur Gürcüoğlu via Unsplash

  1. The BBC is so benighted that it won’t even let you subscribe to individual video categories, like for instance Chris Harris’ videos. Luckily, there are ways of working around that - so here is my highly unofficial RSS feed that fetches those directly from the Beeb’s own site. Enjoy. 

  2. Okay, no official service. I’m perfectly aware of alternatives, and I’ve even gone mano a mano with rtmpdump in my time, but that’s still not nearly as good as Instapaper, because you have to get those saved videos into iTunes and then synced to your devices. Basically, it’s not worth the effort on a regular basis. 

  3. I have yet to see any ad that does anything interesting with those five seconds. You know viewers have the option to skip after five seconds, so deal with it. At the very least make sure that your brand appears within those five seconds, otherwise viewers won’t even know what they skipped. So many ads fail even this simple test! Better, try to grab users’ attention with the five seconds you have, in the hope that they might sit through the whole thing. Vanishingly few advertisers even try to do this, wasting their five seconds on a build-up to something many (most?) viewers will never see because they have already skipped. 

  4. Often advertising in text is anything but subtle, but it can be subtle. It could be subtle. It will be subtle, or else it gets the hose again. 

It’s Tough to be King


So what’s it like to live with the AppleTV? Have any of my complaints been addressed?

In a word: no.

I still don’t have access to Siri, for no good reason that I can determine. A couple of attempts to get a response from @AppleSupport over Twitter did not go anywhere.

In fact, things got even worse, as a software update added "hold to dictate" prompts everywhere, which of course do nothing for me.

Subtle hint for Apple: if the system language is English, and Siri supports English, Siri should be enabled.

Apart from that, the thing has been - fine. It’s a substantial update from the Apple TV 2 which I had before. Even the new remote (despite having one button - the voice prompt - that is completely useless to me) is better than the previous one. People complain that it’s too easy to end up holding it upside down, because it’s symmetrical, but in my experience the combination of the rougher surface of the touch pad and the double-height volume control is enough to keep me oriented.

Text input is terrible, but that’s pretty much inevitable without a keyboard - and that’s when I turn to the Remote app on iOS. I think it’s a safe enough bet that Apple TV owners will also have at least one iOS device lying around.

I can’t really comment on the games; I tried out a few, but the sad fact of the matter is that I’m just not that much of a gamer any more. Sure, Alto’s Adventure is fun, but if I hadn’t already owned it for iOS, I doubt I’d have bothered. I tried out a few racing sims, and didn’t even finish the free levels.

This probably says more about me than about the Apple TV’s capabilities as a gaming console. I’ve never been a console gamer in the first place; I was always a PC guy, preferring big sprawling RTS and sim games. The problem I have is not that those don’t translate to iOS (or tvOS), it’s that they require hours-long play sessions, and I just don’t have plural hours to spend gaming any more.

For my purposes - streaming from my local iTunes library, from the iTunes Store, and from YouTube - the Apple TV is fine. Most of the exciting cord-cuttery stuff isn’t available in my geo, and there just aren’t that many other categories of apps that make sense on a TV as opposed to on a phone or a tablet.

So what are you saying?

It’s not a flop, it’s a very capable fourth-generation device. It’s not transformative, but not every device has to be.

I am also coming in with low expectations, because even if Apple had somehow negotiated deals with content owners, I am certain that I would not have access to them in Italy. Seriously - we don’t even have visual voicemail over here. Forget about HBO or any of that stuff. Even what we do have, like Netflix, is crippled.

Much like iTunes and Apple Music, it’s perfectly fine for what it does. Could it be better? Sure. Should we demand more from Apple? Absolutely. But calling it a flop, a failure, a mess, an embarrassment? That’s going too far.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some YouTube to watch on my Apple TV.

Apple TV Siri Annoyance

I finally got hold of my new Apple TV. The timing was not ideal, as it arrived on Monday - but I had left early on Monday morning for a week-long trip abroad, so I only got to set it up on Friday morning. I wasn’t exactly worried about spoilers, though, so I went ahead and read many of the early reaction reviews. My reaction was similar to what Michael Rockwell describes:

Reviews of the new Apple TV started showing up on Wednesday of last week with deliveries of the device starting to arrive on Friday. I wholeheartedly expected to see overwhelmingly positive reactions from reviewers and owners in my Twitter timeline. But what I saw instead was a barrage of complaints about what I'd consider to be relatively minuscule pain points about the experience.


The complaints I have seen focus mainly on text input. The issue is that all the letters are on a single row, so you end up swiping left and right a lot to enter text. This is somewhat mitigated by the super-easy initial setup, where the Apple TV simply asks you to place your phone near it and picks up your Apple ID, wifi settings, and so on from the phone. Inexplicably, it made me enter my Apple ID password again to set up Home Sharing, though, and the input process was indeed mildly annoying. However, at least in password fields the numbers and punctuation marks appear on a second row, and you can go up and down between rows without having to scroll all the way to the end, so IMHO it’s no worse than any other on-screen text input method. Also, you don’t really enter a lot of text after the initial setup process, so the pain is pretty contained.

On the old Apple TV you could get around the pain by using the Remote app on iOS, which then let you use your iPhone, or even better, your iPad’s soft keyboard to enter text. Unfortunately, the Remote app has not yet been updated to support the new Apple TV.

My own complaint is different. No matter what I do, Siri remains stubbornly disabled.

It seems that Apple have only made Siri available on the Apple TV in certain countries. At time of writing, the list is as follows:

  • English (Australia, Canada, UK, US)

  • German (Germany)

  • French (France)

  • Spanish (Spain)

  • Japanese (Japan)

I gather that this limitation is because they want to train Siri to pronounce media titles and artists’ names correctly for each locale. However, the way they have implemented it is, as I stated in my hot reaction tweet above, bullshit1.

I spent some time attempting to fool the Apple TV into enabling Siri by setting language and region combos that were supported, disabling Location Services, and so on. Nothing I tried got past it - it seems to be going exclusively by the country of the iTunes Store account, so I can choose whether to have Siri or the Store, but not both.

Why can’t big companies understand that some people live in Region A, but want their media from Locale B? If I set everything up to be in en-GB, you don’t need to worry about Siri mangling anything, because it will be speaking the Queen’s English2.

Unfortunately Apple is not new to this particular brand of bullshit1. The iTunes Store forces users to register to the country where their credit card bills are sent. This means that all the catalogues, curated selections, promotional offers and whatnot are specific to that country. In my case, I consume most of my media - books, films, music, etc. - in English, and so the front page of the Italian iTunes Store is utterly useless to me.


It gets worse, though. Sometimes something is not available to me for no apparent reason, even though it is in the UK or US iTunes Store, and available in Italy from other (legal) sources. There is of course never any explanation of why this might be. A few times I have asked writers if they could shed any light (thinking of ongoing international rights negotiations, that sort of thing), and none have yet had any answer - although all have been unfailingly polite and usually suggested alternatives.

The worst, though, is the subtle differences. Animation movies in general, and Pixar movies in particular, are often available in the iTunes Store with only one audio track, which is the Italian dub. If you buy the DVD you get the original English as well, but Apple in its wisdom will only sell you the dub - even though almost every other film in the Store has multiple audio tracks.

Just to be clear, this is not only Apple’s problem. Another recent offender is OpenTable. OpenTable does not operate in Italy, so reasonably enough, the app is not available in the Italian App Store. However, I spend a lot of time in regions where OpenTable is supported, and web apps on a phone are a faff, so I jumped the fence and got the app on my phone anyway. When I fired it up though, all it would do was to give me a snippy message about only being available in certain countries - despite the fact that I was standing in the middle of the capital city of one of those countries, within stone’s throw of a dozen restaurants that supported OpenTable.

I ended up eating at a restaurant that did not accept OpenTable, and enjoyed an excellent meal without their help.

Michael Rockwell is bullish about the software gremlins in the new Apple TV getting fixed soon:

I have high hopes, though. In a few short months, after Apple's shipped a software update or two, we'll no longer have quite as many criticisms to talk about. What we'll be left with is a well-crafted software platform that could revolutionize the way we think about our TVs, in much the same way the App Store has changed how we think about our telephone. As long as developers build incredible software and Apple continues to focus on improving the experience for users, this is going to be a big deal.

I wish I could be equally bullish about the bullshit1 regional policies being addressed equally soon, or indeed ever.

  1. Sorry about the swearing, but this really is bullshit. 

  2. Also known as “English (Traditional)" - as opposed to the “English (Simplified)" they have in the colonies… Don’t be afraid of the U, Americans - it won’t bite you!