At its much-anticipated "show time" event today in Cupertino, California, Apple announced several new financial and entertainment services.
In a densely-packed two-hour presentation, Apple effectively revealed a whole new direction - helping users not through easy-to-use physical devices, but through easy-to-use services. Apple announced no hardware at all. Instead, CEO Tim Cook showed several new Apple services, spanning video, games and finance.
TV and More TV
The most-anticipated announcement, of course, was Apple's new video content service, now officially known as Apple TV+. Details were scanty, but Apple trotted out an array of celebrities to talk about the shows they'll be producing for the service.
There are two aspects to this launch: technology and content.
On the tech side, Apple announced that its Apple TV app would now be available on more than just its own hardware. Starting this spring, it will be available on smart TVs from Samsung. TVs from LG Sony and Vizio will follow in the fall. No detail was offered as to backward compatibility with existing models. Apple TV will also be available on Roku and Amazon Fire TV.
Also announced at the event was Apple TV Channels, essentially an improvement to the aggregation and search features of Apple TV. Users will be able to access over 150 streaming apps, including HBO, Starz or CBS All Access, using an expanded interface, assisted by both human curators and machine-learning personalization,. This will roll out in May as a software update on Apple TV 4K, iPad and iPhone.
Cross-platform implementation could be interesting, given that this expanded Apple TV app will apparently include features that are already available in platforms such as Roku. Does one launch HBO from Roku, or first launch Apple TV and launch HBO from there? Be that as it may, availability of the Apple TV app on many devices will ensure wide accessibility of the Apple TV+ service.
Of course, what we've mostly been waiting to learn is the scope of Apple's debut content offering for its new streaming venture. The announcements at today's event were certainly big and splashy, backed by huge celebrity power. But the overall focus seemed a bit warm and fuzzy.
The biggest celebrity on stage was Steven Spielberg, but his announcement was essentially the revival of his 1980s series Amazing Stories. Solid fare no doubt, but anthology series are not the stuff of which franchise juggernauts are built.
Next-biggest (depending on who you ask) was Oprah Winfrey, who made several somewhat vague announcements. She mentioned two documentaries being in the works, one of which will be Toxic Labor, about sexual harassment in the workplace. She also said she wanted to create "the biggest book club on the planet," streaming conversations with authors.
JJ Abrams appeared with musician Sarah Bareilles, to announce a series called Little Voice, about a promising performer trying to make it in New York City. Alfre Woodard and Jason Momoa will feature in a sci-fi series called See, set centuries after a virus has de-populated the Earth and left the survivors blind. Helpsters will be a kids' series from the Sesame Street Workshop.
Veteran comedians Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carrell announced The Morning Show, which will "look at the complex relationships between men and women in the workplace." And The Big Sick writer Kumail Nanjiani talked about his new series Little America, featuring funny, romantic and/or thrilling stories created by immigrants or the children of immigrants.
Overall, it seemed an odd mix: devoid of major franchises, backed by a line-up of thoroughly mainstream talents. And seemingly targeted at a middle American audience, rather than those in the 100+ countries around the world who will be able to access Apple TV+ starting this fall.
It remains to be seen (literally) whether Apple is keeping any aces up its sleeve, as far as content. Also still to be discovered is the pricing model. Apple stated only that Apple TV+ would be an ad-free subscription service, with all content viewable both online and offline, on any device that can run the Apple TV app.
Games and News
Apple is also making a push in games, an impressive move given Steve Jobs' renowned disdain for this form of entertainment.
Tim Cook noted that a half billion people visit the App Store every week, and games are the most popular category of app. He added that iOS is the biggest gaming platform in the world. There are over 300,000 games in the App Store, both free and paid, and over a billion people have downloaded at least one.
A new tab called Apple Arcade builds on this base. It will access a new subscription service, accessing over 100 "new and exclusive" games at launch, and adding more all the time. There will be no ads, no other charges, and no limits on play time. Apple will be working with a long list of developers to help populate the Arcade with premium titles. Parental control will be available via Apple's Screen Time feature.
Apple Arcade will be available this fall, in over 150 countries and regions. Pricing, alas, has not been announced.
The other content announcement was Apple News+. This will expand on Apple's existing News service, which it says already has "over 5 billion articles" read every month.
Apple News+ will expand to over 300 magazines, including most of the big names such as National Geographic, Wired and Sports Illustrated - and even Canadian publications such as The Star. These publications will be beautifully formatted for viewing on iPhone, iPad or Mac, with ‘live' video covers and other touches. Readers will have lots of search tools, favorites and so on.
The Apple News+ service will be priced at US$9.99 per month, and will support Apple's family sharing. It launches today in Canada and the US, and will expand to the UK and Australia starting this fall.
Dollars and Cents
Apple had equally major news was on the financial side. It will be building on its Apple Pay processing system, and partnering with Goldman Sachs, to offer a new physical Apple Card. This will be a titanium (!) card with the user's name laser-etched on it, and with no other markings. All details will be handled electronically, via Apple Pay.
The card will offer Daily Cash rewards. Users will get 2% of their Apple Pay purchases back, 1% is using the physical card, and 3% on purchases from Apple itself. Statements are promised to be particularly helpful, with purchases categorized by machine-learning software.
Apple promises that all processing will happen on the user's device. Apple won't know what you bought, where you bought it or how much you paid for it. Goldman Sachs will presumably have to know those details, but Apple promises that "Goldman Sachs will never share or sell your data to third parties for marketing."
Apple clearly sees privacy and security as potential differentiators for its products, and emphasized these factors throughout its presentation. Services such as Apple News and Apple TV promise not to track readers, or to allow advertisers to do so. All personalization is said to work on the user's device, without sending data to Apple. Apple did say that games will not collect data "without your consent," a notable caveat, given that ‘withholding consent' has traditionally meant giving up on using an app or service.
Overall, the presentation was one of Apple's best. It boldly propelled the company in a whole new direction, without resorting to undue hyperbole or hucksterism. Of course, the success of ventures such as Apple TV+ will not be know for many months, and many details are still missing. It will be very interesting to see how the public takes to these broad new offereings.