Stream Time is where Tom's Guide senior editor Henry T. Casey dives into the big choices we make about streaming media. We tackle it all, from the best and worst streaming services and devices, to the never-ending list of shows to watch.
SharePlay, announced at WWDC 2021, is the feature I needed throughout the pandemic. Similar to Netflix Party, Disney Plus GroupWatch and other offerings, SharePlay will let you enjoy a streamed movie or song at the same time with others, and it adds a FaceTime call on top.
This is a huge gain for those of us who have been forced to go online for shared live experiences during the last year (and years prior). On a frequent basis, I've used either Discord or Google Meet to watch shows with friends who I couldn't be in the same room with.
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That's how my little horror movie club managed to keep the frights alive, as well as how I managed to make some of the silliest movies of the last year — including Wonder Woman 1984 and Zack Snyder's Justice League — a bit more palatable, watching and cracking jokes with friends.
That method, though, was flawed at best. We had to do a countdown at the start of the movie, and it didn't always go right. Someone, inevitably, would get out of sync. Most of the time we weren't watching movies on Disney Plus, Hulu or Prime Video, so we couldn't use the existing options.
That said, I can already see the cracks in the mold when it comes to SharePlay — and they start with the big red elephant in the room, notable by its absence.
SharePlay partners and notable absences
Apple announced a pretty decent list of apps that will support SharePlay up front. You've got Disney Plus, Hulu and ESPN Plus (the Disney Plus bundle), though the first two already have their own ways for synchronous viewing. SharePlay adds to the Disney Plus GroupWatch and Hulu Watch Party functionality, with the addition of video calls via FaceTime.
As someone who has tried to juggle multiple devices and services at the same time for these calls to work out, I'm excited at this kind of unification. SharePlay also features a trick that takes the effort out of these calls, as Apple claims "volume automatically adjusts, so you can keep talking while you watch," instead of muting and un-muting yourself.
HBO Max and Paramount Plus are two big partners for the service, as they don't have any remote-watching functionality at all. The list of other announced apps includes the NBA app, Pluto TV, TikTok, Twitch, MasterClass and Zillow. Of course, your mileage may vary when considering the value in watching each with others remotely.
Apple is trying to make SharePlay a universally adopted feature, as evidenced by its SharePlay for Developers page (opens in new tab). But right now, it's missing Amazon Prime Video (which has its own Watch Party feature), and there is no live TV streaming service, as the likes of Sling TV, YouTube TV and Fubo TV were not mentioned. We're hoping that Hulu inclusion means Hulu With Live TV is also there, but we're not sure.
And while I'm a little irked to not see those omissions (as well as YouTube's) on this list, Netflix's absence is much more concerning.
Netflix needs SharePlay
Netflix, one of the biggest services on the planet (and in my own daily consumption), is not a part of this conversation right now. And it's long lacked any kind of shared viewing experience, and it's gotten kind of irksome. Sure, Netflix Party and others exist, but they don't work with streaming devices (just laptops) and Apple's solution is far more ideal — merging shared and synchronous streams with video calls.
And since both sides of the SharePlay call seem to need their own subscriptions to the apps and services in question, this doesn't seem to be a situation where DRM issues are a concern. Which all makes me wonder why Netflix isn't on that list, since it's clear they're lacking, and need something like this.
I called up Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore, to get his take. He believes Netflix does need this, or something similar, telling me "I think this is really, in a sense the future of [the industry], as you might think, 'Well, you can get this content on your computer, on your phone, on your TV through these various devices. There's tons of content, where is there to go?' Well, the magic element here is that interactivity, that communal capability."
We'd bet Netflix is likely working on its own version, set to roll out ... eventually. This isn't a feature that the company necessarily needs — people subscribe to services for shows, not software — but if done perfectly it would probably make Netflix look better in the eyes of customers.
Dergarabedian agreed, saying "we're in a world right now where it's primarily, I think, and first and foremost, content driven, but I think the way you take all of this to the next level ... is to offer up an experiential part that's delivered through technology," So while Netflix's library may be its biggest weapon, he says, "in the future, it may become a combo where I want my content, but if it doesn't have this value added ability to commiserate with others and be in that communal experience, that may be a deciding factor, not necessarily on getting rid of a certain service, but adding another."
He also believes it could be key for Netflix's partnerships, saying "I think it'd be in their best interest to have it particularly, if filmmakers and creatives go, 'We want to have that option.' ... FOMO isn't just for consumers. It's also for creatives and even a technology companies.
SharePlay flaws I can already see from here
First off, SharePlay only works on iOS 15, iPadOS 15, macOS Monterey and tvOS 15. That means you can only stream with folks inside Apple's 'walled garden' and that everyone has to upgrade to the latest OS. And while the latter is easily remedied, my horror movie club has an Android-using member — and we're not going to force him to switch to an iPhone.
Secondly, while the inclusion of tvOS and the Apple TV is great, it's hard to envision how it's going to work. The Apple TV doesn't have a camera or a microphone, so how will those using SharePlay via an Apple TV do this? Would Apple TV ever support external webcams?
Some people will watch video on their smaller screens, but it's not hard to argue for the need to prepare the Apple TV and tvOS for true SharePlay support.
There is a possible solution. Could tvOS work with the front-facing camera in your iPhone, iPad or Mac? Face ID on the iPhone is supposed to work with tvOS app login in this fall's updates, so it doesn't sound impossible, since that's already using the front-facing camera.
All you'd have to do now is prop up your iPhone, iPad, or MacBook to focus on your face.
Most of these flaws (we doubt SharePlay is coming to Roku and Fire TV) could be corrected by fall 2021, when SharePlay is set to debut across all of Apple's new OS updates. And for the sake of all parties involved, they should. Without Netflix's participation, Apple doesn't look that great here, again missing a key player in an online conversation (Fortnite gamers say "what's up?").
Maybe, by then, Netflix will have its own solution. One that works across Fire TV and Roku devices, with your iOS or Android phone. Or maybe that's too many partners to get it done right. We're holding out hope, though, as a better remote watch-party is something we all deserve, especially after the last year-plus of nonsense.
Be sure to check out my guides to the best streaming devices (and best streaming services) for more recommendations. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below with anything you’d like to see me cover in the streaming world — I might just address it in a future installment.