Fans of the Plex media platform may be delighted to hear that the service can now integrate with Apple’s TV app, however that enthusiasm could be short-lived considering that limitations with Apple’s TV app ecosystem still prevent the two features from being deeply linked to the level that they really need to be.
For those familiar with Plex, it’s primarily a platform that lets you stream personal content — either from a media server that you have running inside your home, or from those shared by friends and family members over the internet. Essentially, it’s like Netflix for the media you own.
At least, that’s how the service began. Over the past couple of years, however, Plex has been rapidly expanding into new areas, first adding live TV and DVR support to let you watch and record broadcast television from an over-the-air antenna, and then more recently upping the game by offering its own cloud streaming content, so you can download and install Plex and watch a variety shows and movies online regardless of whether you or any of your friends have your own Plex media servers.
Although Plex has had an Apple TV app available since 2015, however, it always lacked integration with the larger Apple TV ecosystem — it didn’t tie in when Apple debuted Universal Search, nor could you look up your Plex movies and TV shows using Siri, and lastly it never tied into Apple’s TV app in any way at all. Essentially, Plex has always been a silo unto itself — if you wanted to watch content in Plex, you had to manually open the Plex app and access it from there.
So, when rumours appeared last month that Plex would be integrating with the Apple TV app, many users got their hopes up that this would finally put Plex in the front seat, allowing content from Plex libraries to be more readily accessible, and combining content from Plex and multiple streaming services into the single Up Next queue provided by the TV app, with the vision of having one “dashboard” for all of your content.
However, those of us who understood how Apple’s Universal Search integration works under the hood were considerably more skeptical that this would be possible, and now it turns out that there is indeed a big catch.
Plex Provided Content Only
When the feature first showed up in beta last month, a Plex employee quickly weighed in to explain that the service would only work with titles provided by Plex itself, and not users own personal content, adding that “it will probably never be library stuff.”
In other words, if you use Plex to watch the free content that Plex provides from its own servers, then those shows will appear in your Up Next queue in Apple’s TV app, and you’ll also be able to search for and browse any of those items.
In fact, this integration should work in the same way as other services like Disney+ and Amazon Prime. While there is still one major holdout in this area — Netflix — that’s ultimately the choice that the company has made.
At this time, the feature is limited to users in the U.S. for whatever reason, although a Plex team member has said that the company has “no real control over it being US only for now,” and plans to expand it to other areas as soon as it can.
Why Can’t I Access My Plex Library?
If you’re a Plex user and this wasn’t the solution you were hoping for, you’re far from alone — we’re in the same boat — but as Plex already noted, support for personal libraries will likely never come unless Apple makes some very significant changes to how the Apple TV app and tvOS works.
Right now, all the ways in which the Apple TV — the device and the app — integrates with third-party streaming services happen in the cloud. Apple doesn’t provide any way for Universal Search, Siri, or the TV app to hook directly into other third-party streaming services — even though it may sometimes seem like that’s exactly what it’s doing.
Instead, all the services that integrate with Universal Search, Siri, and the TV app have to provide their entire content catalogues to Apple, where it’s stored on servers in the cloud. When you use Siri or the TV app to find a TV show from a service like Amazon Prime or Disney+, it’s this cloud catalogue that’s being searched; the TV app doesn’t touch any third-party streaming apps at all until you actually choose to play a selected title.
When you find something you want to watch from a third-party streaming provider, Apple’s catalogue includes a “deep link” to that particular content item, and it’s this link that’s used to open the appropriate app to start playing that movie or TV show. This is the same method that allows YouTube links found in Safari to automatically open in the YouTube app on your iPhone or iPad.
Unfortunately, while it’s obviously trivial for Plex to provide its entire catalogue to Apple for the streaming content that Plex provides, it’s not plausible that this could be done for the personal streaming libraries of thousands or millions of users. Even leaving aside privacy concerns — Plex would have to share the details of every user’s personal library with Apple — right now Apple doesn’t even have any way to differentiate libraries on a per-user basis; although the catalogues are different for each country, the design of the TV app and tvOS search services assumes that all the content in a given country’s catalogue is available to every user in that region.
For Plex personal libraries to appear in the Apple TV app, the onus would be on Apple to enable some kind of local search in tvOS that could dig into third-party apps and their libraries directly. However, since Apple likely has almost no motivation to do this at all, it’s fair to say it’s not likely going to happen any time in the near future. The good news, however, is that if you’re a fan of the content that Plex offers up from its own streaming service, at least you can now enjoy that in Apple’s TV app.