YouTube has had a complicated relationship with Picture in Picture on iOS devices over the years, and unfortunately, it seems like things might be getting a little bit worse before they get better, as not only has the popular video streaming service not yet actually delivered support for Picture in Picture in its native iPhone and iPad app, but it’s actually begun disabling the feature in Safari for some users.
To be clear, Picture in Picture is not actually a new iOS feature in the broader sense — the iPad has supported it since iOS 9 debuted back in 2015 — it’s merely taken another five years for Apple to bring the same feature to iPhone users.
During that entire five-year span, however, YouTube has never shown any interest in adding Picture in Picture support to its native YouTube app, forcing iPad users to resort to opening YouTube videos in Safari if they wanted to take advantage of PiP.
This same workaround also applies to the iPhone, and actually worked reasonably well up until a couple of days ago. While it seems that YouTube was content to allow iPad users to use PiP for years, now that the feature is available on the iPhone, the video streaming giant is cracking down hard on it.
iPhone and YouTube Premium
At this point, the move only seems to affect iPhone users, and only when streaming directly from YouTube.com; videos embedded on third-party sites can still play in Picture in Picture mode just fine.
This also appears to be a deliberate decision by YouTube and not merely a bug, since Picture in Picture actually still works perfectly fine on the iPhone if you’re a YouTube Premium subscriber.
This change actually isn’t really all that surprising, since one of the main selling points of YouTube Premium is to unlock background audio playback — a feature that’s been around since iOS 4 was released a decade ago.
Picture in Picture on the iPhone actually created a loophole for this, since it would allow users to exit Safari and continue listening to music in the background; in fact, you can even swipe the PiP video window off to one side to keep listening without it getting in the way.
Unlike the background audio feature, however, sound from the video won’t continue playing if you actually turn your screen off.
Still, this is the sort of thing that YouTube has clearly worked very hard to prevent iPhone users from doing without paying their dues, since the Premium tier was designed to allow users to turn YouTube into an audio player for things like licensed music videos for which YouTube naturally has to pay a cut to the music industry, and when users are listening but not watching, they’re not seeing the ads, so YouTube has to find some other way to pay its content creators.
This has obviously been less of a concern for YouTube’s iPad users, perhaps because few people are likely to carry an iPad around in their pocket as a portable music player, plus background playback has never been restricted in this way on a desktop computer, and it’s fair to say that, at least in this particular case, an iPad falls into the same general category.
However, it’s also entirely possible that YouTube simply hasn’t gotten around to blocking YouTube background playback on the iPad, since it uses an entirely different web interface than the iPhone does.
What About the YouTube App?
YouTube does appear to be making plans to bring Picture in Picture to the YouTube app, with some users reporting that they suddenly found it working on their iPhone or iPad.
These reports came from users who were running the standard release version of YouTube, suggesting that it’s possible for the video provider to enable it on the back end without any further app updates required, which would be typical for how Google rolls out feature updates in its other apps.
Based on this recent change in Safari, however, it’s a safe bet that when YouTube finally does throw the switch to make it available in the YouTube app, you’ll almost certainly require a $12/month YouTube Premium subscription to take advantage of it — at least on the iPhone.
It’s also worth noting here that YouTube Premium costs $16/month as an in-app purchase through the YouTube app, so unless you’re willing to pay Apple’s 30% App Store commission yourself in exchange for the benefits of using the App Store, you’re better off visiting YouTube’s website in your browser and making the purchase from there. It’s the same subscription either way, and you don’t need to buy the in-app version just to take advantage of iOS features.
Apple TV Support
Further, even though tvOS 14 brings Picture in Picture support to Apple’s set-top box since the YouTube app doesn’t yet support the feature on the iOS side, it’s naturally not ready on the Apple TV at this point either, and of course there’s no Safari browser on tvOS to use as a workaround. It’s unclear, however, whether Picture in Picture on the Apple TV will also require a YouTube Premium subscription.
As MacRumors notes, the promised support for YouTube in 4K hasn’t fully arrived for the Apple TV yet either, despite it being a marquee feature of tvOS 14, and working fine in earlier tvOS 14 betas for at least some people.
YouTube’s support has indicated that it will be coming soon, so they’re probably working out some bugs still, since YouTube uses an entirely different codec for its 4K videos, and like the Picture in Picture feature on the iPhone and iPad app, it’s likely something that gets switched on from the back end, rather than as a whole new app update, which is why only some users have been seeing it sporadically.