Apple is bringing one of the trendiest features of streaming to iPhone users with the debut of SharePlay in iOS 15 later this year, allowing FaceTime users to stream music, online videos, and movies together with friends. The move positions FaceTime to compete more directly with platforms like Facebook Messenger, Instagram and Houseparty, all of which offer ways to video chat while watching things as a group. It offers Apple an opportunity to engage a new generation of users with FaceTime, but the service still lacks some key integrations to make that possible, especially for the teens likely to use it.
SharePlay, announced earlier this week and likely to be released in the fall, will allow FaceTime users to share and stream media in real time from an iPhone, iPad, Mac or Apple TV. It’s a useful tool for the pandemic era, and it’s inspired by the watch party modes that a lot of major streaming platforms, including Disney Plus, Hulu, and Prime Video, have added themselves in the past year. For services where it is not supported, such as Netflix, there are popular extensions that allow simultaneous streaming and chatting.
However, the goal is not to compete with those native platforms. After all, you’re still watching Hulu, just in a different room. Instead, the update pits FaceTime against services like Facebook Messenger that dominate messaging and have already tried to build co-watching experiences, but without as robust a service list as Apple can create.
SharePlay makes especially sense for the next generation of iPhone users as teens are more inclined to watch videos on their phones. Video-based social media apps like Instagram and TikTok are immensely popular among teens, and a overwhelming majority of teens access these apps on their own personal smartphones. Video chatting is also hugely popular, with a Survey 2015 Pew Research shows that 59 percent of American teens video chat with their friends.
The introduction of SharePlay also encounters Apple’s reported plans to make iMessage more directly compete with WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, by becoming more of a social network. It makes sense that the company would also invest in development for its video calling product, which is just a few taps away.
But if Apple wants SharePlay to be a success among the demographics of consumers likely to use it, it will need to expand the number of apps that support it.
Apple said that at launch, Disney Plus, ESPN Plus, HBO Max, Hulu, MasterClass, Paramount Plus, Pluto TV, TikTok, and Twitch will be supported on SharePlay, which is a somewhat limited grab bag of streaming options. Admittedly, there’s plenty of time to make that list longer before iOS 15 officially rolls out to users in the fall. And Apple told The edge that SharePlay will be available to any streaming app that wants to support it, so we’ll likely see wider adoption down the road.
However, some of the best uses of this feature failed to reach Apple’s first list of supported services. Netflix is perhaps the most obvious of these, simply because pretty much everyone has a Netflix login, whether they actually pay for it or not (at least until the inevitable password crackdown). But YouTube was also not mentioned, and neither company commented on possible support over time when contacted by The edge this week. However, a spokesperson for Peacock said: The edge that SharePlay support was on its “roadmap”.
YouTube in particular seems to be a huge miss for Apple in particular when it comes to teenagers. YouTube hosts just about every digital media format imaginable — music, movies, news, personalities, tutorials, live feeds, etc — but most importantly, it’s free. As video callers tend to skew younger though apps with highly shareable content like live streams seem to be the best use case for SharePlay outside of live sporting events. That’s especially true because for paid services, every participant in a SharePlay streaming session requires a login to the app. After all, if the tool didn’t require login credentials and allowed anyone to let in a FaceTime stream of content from a paid service, SharePlay would be a piracy nightmare.
But that’s part of what makes SharePlay’s practical application a bit of a puzzle. Streaming the game or a movie premiere can get expensive quickly. If your friends watch NFL coverage on Sling TV, you’ll need a $35 subscription to join (assuming the content is included in one of the service’s basic plans). If you want to watch a Premier Access release, such as Cruella on Disney Plus you have to pay the monthly subscription fee of $8 on top of an additional $30 early access fee. (A Disney Plus spokesperson confirmed to The edge that SharePlay users still have to pay to access to watch.)
It’s hard to imagine that most users would pay for a service to be able to FaceTime while watching a title. On the other hand, based on recent trends in media consumption among teens, SharePlay may be part of the future of how entertainment is consumed, at least for the younger subset of Apple users.
It makes sense that a company investing heavily in its service offerings would jump on the watch party trend, if not a little late, and it feels like a natural way for Apple to not only stay relevant, but also sell subscriptions and hardware. – even if at this point, it seems unlikely that SharePlay alone will increase the numbers for streaming services. Free, socially oriented services and streaming titans have the best chance of success with this feature, and live streaming apps probably seem to perform best. But they will have to turn into On SharePlay to make that work. As it stands, many are not.