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When Apple debuted iOS 14 earlier this year, one of the smaller yet still significant announcements was that the iPhone would finally be gaining picture-in-picture support, allowing users to continue watching — or even just listening — to videos while performing other tasks on their device.
Of course, like most new features in iOS 14, this requires developers to support the necessary video playback APIs, but the announcement led many users to hope that YouTube would quickly get on board as well, since it’s one of the most popular apps for viewing videos, and probably one of the ones where PiP support would be most welcomed.
However, we remained a bit more cautiously optimistic, since the fact is that YouTube has actually already had five years to introduce this feature, and it doesn’t appear to have been in any hurry to do so.
You see, iOS 14 isn’t actually adding anything that hasn’t already been available to iPad users since iOS 9; the only thing that’s new here is that the iPhone is gaining a feature that has only previously been available on the iPad, and there’s already a long list of apps that you can use with PiP on iOS 14 simply because they already support it on the iPad — and many of them have for years.
However, the YouTube app is not one of them; in all this time YouTube has conspicuously failed to add any picture-in-picture playback to its iPad app.
Instead, users looking to watch YouTube videos in PiP mode have been forced to resort to using Safari as a workaround, and this can be a bit cumbersome if you want to also keep the native YouTube app installed on your device, since links to YouTube videos will always open directly in the main YouTube app, so you have to take extra steps to open them in Safari just to get PiP support.
Fortunately, it looks like changes in iOS 14 are finally motivating YouTube to get with the program and begin adding PiP support to its native app.
According to 9to5Mac, YouTube has begun testing the feature for a small subset of its users, who have been reporting seeing selected videos suddenly beginning to work with picture-in-picture mode.
Most notably, this appears to be happening with the YouTube app that’s already in the App Store, as opposed to a beta version that’s being rolled out more selectively, suggesting that the groundwork to use Apple’s APIs have already been laid down, and YouTube simply needs to enable the feature on the back end, which is typical for how Google rolls out feature updates in its apps.
It’s unclear exactly what you can do (if anything) to make it work, but once it’s available it should “just work” like PiP does for any other app — just be sure you’re running the latest version of the YouTube app and return to the home screen after you start playing a video.
So it’s worth keeping an eye out to see if it will start working for any of the videos you watch in the YouTube app. So far, we haven’t been able to make it kick in, but of course your mileage may vary depending on whether you or the videos you’re watching are in YouTube’s pilot group.
It’s also worth noting that since YouTube officially only allows background playback for YouTube Premium subscribers it’s quite possible you may need a paid subscription to access PiP in the YouTube app.
YouTube already offers background audio playback, and has done so for years, but it’s limited to YouTube Premium plans. However, YouTube in Safari suffers from no such limitations for video playback, so it’s hard to say right now what YouTube’s policy on this will be going forward.
A YouTube Premium subscription will run you $12/month if you subscribe directly on YouTube’s website, although buying it through the YouTube app on iOS costs $16/month as YouTube marks it up to account for Apple’s 30% App Store commission.
This sudden embracing of picture-in-picture by YouTube also seems like it could be related to the introduction of support for 4K YouTube videos, which could simply be part of a business agreement by YouTube to add the feature in return for Apple adding YouTube’s VP9 codec to iOS 14, or there could be some technical reason that ties the feature to VP9 codec support.
Apple has made deals with video content providers in the past offering incentives such as lowered App Store fees for those that agree to support the full collection of Apple TV features, so it may have inked a similar deal with Google as part of the same program. If so, it’s also possible that in addition to PiP support, we could soon see YouTube lowering its in-app Premium subscription fees and possibly even selling paid content directly in the YouTube app, much like Amazon has recently begun doing with Amazon Prime.
For now, however, it does look like at least YouTube Premium subscribers will be able to enjoy hassle-free YouTube PiP on their iPhones and iPads by the time iOS 14 lands this fall.