Apple’s SharePlay vision: Too little, too late?

Why productivity and personality will be critical to SharePlay's success.

Apple, developers, WWDC, Mac, iPhone, iOS, social
Apple

Apple has made several attempts that nod in the same direction as its new SharePlay service, announced at WWDC 2021. Looking back, you’ll see that Apple has made attempts in what became the social media space, with Ping the most widely known failure.

Of course, Apple’s failures in social media now look like success, given the corrosive impact some services have had. “Platforms and algorithms that promised to improve our lives can actually magnify our worst human tendencies,” Apple CEO Tim Cook has said.

But Apple hasn’t lost interest in finding some way to make use of casual, person-centered, and networked computer communications. That’s the space it’s exploring with SharePlay.

What is SharePlay?

Apple describes SharePlay as a set of tools you can use to share music, TV, movies, and more with other people in real time using FaceTime. The company is climbing aboard a set of trends here, as shared listening and movie watching parties became popular across some age demographics during the pandemic.

These are the primary ways Apple is offering up sharing across its apps in SharePlay right now:

  • SharePlay supports screen sharing, which becomes a “simple and super effective way to help someone out and answer questions right in the moment,” said Apple SVP of Software Engineering, Craig Federighi.
  • A Shared with You tab makes content such as images, websites, news links and so on available in the relevant apps. You may see an image you recently received in a Messages thread in the Shared with you Tab in Photos, for example.
  • For Apple TV, SharePlay provides shared playback controls so all participants can play, pause, or jump ahead.
  • In FaceTime, users can share music, TV, movies, and more with others in real time.
  • FaceTime calls also extend beyond Apple devices for the first time — anyone can join a FaceTime call from their web browser on Android and Windows devices.

What about the developers?

Apple has also created an API so developers can build support for their own apps into FaceTime. Right now, the API seems focused on media sharing, which is why the likes of Disney+, ESPN+, HBO Max, Hulu, MasterClass, Paramount+, Pluto TV, TikTok, and Twitch are implementing support for SharePlay.

Netflix isn’t, but this seems to be the nature of the times we are in, as hundreds of channels on our cable subscription are replaced by hundreds of digital channels that all want our fee.

Apple’s social media problem

This lack of support for creative collaboration is Apple’s Achilles heel when it comes to social media. Ping’s big problem wasn’t the lack of music or lack of support from artists, it was that Apple made it near impossible to leave any personal content on there. That lack of personality meant Ping lacked personality, which is why it failed.

With SharePlay, Apple has gone a little further toward a personal touch. You’ll be able to interact with people while engaging in shared experiences, though this remains a transient form of sharing when compared to other social networks.

The benefit (for Apple) is a massive reduction in the need for content moderation, while the wider benefit is that troves of the kind of data abused on other social media services does not exist; the cost is a lack of stickiness and engagement.

The popularity of other social media services tells us people like to leave footprints in the sand, which is why they like to share thoughts and ideas in a more permanent way. Without a reason to become deeply engaged, SharePlay (like Ping) risks becoming a service people won’t use, though I think TV/movie listening parties will be popular.

To make SharePlay more interesting, Apple needs to change its mindset. Rather than leaning into consumer markets with this, it should lean more deeply into productivity.

Think how SharePlay might be woven into productivity apps. I can see the value in creative users collaborating on Creative Suite, Final Cut Pro, or Logic X projects from within a FaceTime call, for example, just as I can see Office users benefiting from personal interaction while working on projects (which is what Skype and Teams already do).

What needs to happen

If Apple gets a grip on building APIs to exploit SharePlay from within creative apps, the service has a chance to do quite well. It needs to consider the extent to which the world has changed — even in the last 12 months.

After all, just as BYOD and mobility consumerized the enterprise, so too have consumer markets become professionalized. We use the same tools for work and for play, and within that context a product such as SharePlay needs to straddle both enterprise and consumer markets, as the division between both erodes and the categories themselves now reflect a reality increasingly visible in the rear-view mirror.

In today’s connected, distanced, and remote world, we are all consumers, just as we are all professionals. The most successful companies, tools, and services will embrace that reality.

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Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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