Apple never comes to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), but this year, of all years, the company showed up. Sort of. Looming above the monorail station at the Las Vegas Convention Center, there’s a massive black-and-white mural with the silhouette of an iPhone and a message: “What happens on your iPhone stays on your iPhone.” As tourists and tech journalists snapped pictures of the ad, something else was happening quietly in conference rooms along the Strip: Apple software was appearing on TVs.
More specifically, four of the world’s top TV manufacturers—LG, Samsung, Sony, and Vizio—are adding AirPlay 2.0 to new models. Vizio, for one, is making the feature backward compatible so every display with the company’s Smartcast operating system will get AirPlay 2.0 through a software update later this year. That means you can pull up an iTunes movie on your phone, tap tap, and then watch it on your TV. The same holds for photos, music, or really anything that works with AirPlay 2.0. Think of it like Chromecast, except it’s designed for Apple devices and works better. Also, you don’t need to blow $35 on a physical dongle or, more intriguingly, $150 on an Apple TV.
This might seem less dramatic than it sounds. While built-in AirPlay 2.0 functionality does make it easier to beam content from an iPhone or Mac to your TV, it’s not a full-fledged Apple operating system in new LG, Samsung, Sony, and Vizio TVs. It’s also not a complete substitute for Apple TV. Rather, the addition of AirPlay 2.0 means that you can easily turn these new TVs (and old TVs, in Vizio’s case) into quick and easy secondary displays for your Apple device. Samsung is also taking this a stage further and adding an iTunes app to its new smart TVs. So you don’t even need an Apple device to watch iTunes content on a Samsung TV.
But there’s a second layer to this announcement that beefs up the meaning. In addition to AirPlay 2.0, Apple is also adding HomeKit compatibility to all of these TVs. That means you’ll be able to ask Siri to turn on your TV and then play Mission Impossible: Fallout, and Siri should do that.
Apple appears to be charging into people’s living rooms with renewed vigor and on the backs of its competitors. For years, people have speculated that Apple would release its own TV hardware. Think of the old Cinema Display but big enough to hang on your living room wall. Now, it seems obvious that the company is heading a different direction. After years of success selling little black set-top boxes, Apple is adding an elegant software solution that turns best-selling TV sets from LG, Samsung, Sony, and Vizio into displays for Apple content and into hub-like devices for HomeKit-powered smart home stuff. It also makes them a perfect vehicle for paid services that Apple hasn’t even announced yet, like the company’s rumored streaming video service.
This brings us back to CES, where Apple isn’t and is. At least, following the AirPlay news, the company is on everyone’s mind. The past few days have seen a lot of investors and fans wringing their hands after announced that it would be lowering its first-quarter earnings estimates. Pointing to slowing iPhone sales and China, the company has admitted that things aren’t going great in its traditional selling-of-pocket-computer business. Meanwhile, Apple’s services business—which includes not only iTunes but also the App Store, iCloud, Apple Music, and an untold number of future products—is booming. So it’s not hard to imagine how broadcasting Apple content onto millions of new TVs made by other companies could be a huge boon to Tim Cook and his friends in Cupertino. In essence, this rather stealthy CES announcement about AirPlay and HomeKit serves as a quiet, “We got this,” from Apple.
That enormous ad near the Las Vegas Convention Center, on the other hand, is louder. It’s literally looming over those coming and going from the main stage at CES and, especially since Google has wrapped the Monorail in an ad for Assistant, it’s screaming to remind people that Apple is committed to privacy in a different way than its competitors. Yes, your data does live on your iPhone in a way that’s unique from the free-wheeling world of Android devices. No, the ad seems to suggest, you shouldn’t trust companies whose business models are built on exploiting your personal data. But also, sure, Apple would be glad to sell you some services that you can access on devices made by other companies. In fact, Apple is about to make that easier than ever.
So even though you won’t see an Apple booth on the show floor at CES 2019, the company insists you acknowledge its presence. As new TVs roll off the assembly line and get software updates this year, they will be ready to display Apple content and support Apple devices. Apple will continue to offer new ways for its customers to trade dollars for services. Siri, we think, will continue to suck sometimes, but it might not matter in the end. It won’t be the only choice for voice control, which is fine, because Apple is suddenly open to new ideas, like choices. So long as they somehow bring you back to Apple.