Commentary: A recent change to Vudu's iOS app lets you play videos on your Apple TV -- despite the fact that there's no official app on the box itself.
The Apple TV box has only gotten better since its debut in 2015, with thousands of new apps and plenty of usability improvements via software updates. Even more improvements -- single sign-on for some cable and satellite providers and the new TV app -- are due by the end of the year.
But if the product has one frustration point, it's the continued lack of alternatives for buying or renting TV shows and movies. (I'm not counting "all you can eat" subscription services like Netflix, Hulu and HBO Now, since you can't choose individual titles.) While Roku has several to choose from -- including Amazon, Google Play Movies and TV, Vudu and Fandango Now -- Apple TV only has iTunes.
At least, that's the case if you count what's available in the Apple TV app store. But if you use AirPlay -- Apple's standard for streaming audio and video -- you can watch content on an Apple TV box from all three of those rival video stores if your iPad or iPhone is on the same Wi-Fi network.
The Vudu iOS app just added full AirPlay compatibility to the Walmart-owned online video service earlier this week. Just start playing a Vudu movie or TV show on your iPhone or iPad, and you can toggle the video over to a nearby Apple TV at the touch of an icon.
I tried it with two or three titles on Vudu and Google Play, and it worked fine. The video quality on the Apple TV was smooth and relatively sharp, and you can use either your iOS device or the Apple TV remote to scrub through what you're watching. Using Amazon's app, though, you need to engage AirPlay Mirroring mode: It's a bit less flexible, and means you have to control everything through your iPhone or iPad, and you need to leave the video on the device's screen -- you can't click away to another app, as you can with normal AirPlay. The video quality in Mirroring mode also suffers a bit.
Of course, AirPlay is not as convenient as having these native apps on Apple TV. Asked about their continued absence, an Apple spokesperson said, "As we've said time and time again, we welcome all kinds of apps to the Apple TV platform." And yet, Vudu's spokesperson reaffirmed, "We're not currently on Apple TV and don't have an update to share at this time."
The problem, as usual, comes down to money. Under the current App Store structure, vendors are required give a 30 percent cut of every sale or rental to Apple. Companies like Walmart, Google and Amazon don't want to cut into their already slim profit margins -- let alone transfer money to a strategic rival. That's why their iOS apps let you view your video library, but don't let you make in-app purchases of new videos.
Reported changes to Apple's revenue share model may change the balance of that equation, though it's unclear if those unconfirmed changes only apply to subscription services such as Netflix, Hulu, Sling TV and the just-launched PlayStation Vue.
In the meantime, taking advantage of the AirPlay loophole is a good compromise.