Why You May (or May Not) See YouTube Picture-in-Picture Soon

Don’t we have it already?

  • YouTube is bringing Picture-in-Picture to its premium TV app.
  • It is still not adding PiP to the regular old mobile browser YouTube. 
  • YouTube can’t seem to make up its mind about this feature.
iPhone Picture-in-Picture

Soon, you may be able to play a YouTube TV video in a little floating window while you ignore it and do other things. 

According to YouTube, picture-in-picture (PiP) is coming to the iPhone any day now (for YouTube TV users anyway). PiP video has been built into the iPad since iOS 9 in 2015. And, just seven years later, YouTube will finally support it, albeit in a limited manner. But why has it taken so long? And can’t you do this already?

"Also, this is not the only area in which Google has dragged its heels when it comes to embracing iPhone and iPad features. Split-screen multitasking also came to the iPad in iOS 9, yet it wasn’t until mid-2020 that the Gmail app actually supported it,” Bakir Djulich, a marketing manager for social media agency Amra & Elma, told Lifewire via email. 

Picture This

YouTube has actually tested PiP extensively over the years, most recently as an exclusive feature for YouTube Premium subscribers. But after the latest test, YouTube pulled the feature yet again and then promised that it would roll out to all iOS users soon.

Then, a few days ago on Twitter, @TeamYouTube "clarified” the situation, saying that "what's currently being rolled out is the YouTube TV picture-in-picture for iOS 15+ devices. If you're referring to the one for the YouTube app, it's only available to Premium members on Android mobile phones.”

Translation: Still no PiP for regular YouTube. 

An image of someone playing a YouTube video on a smartphone.
Photo © TommL / Getty Images

Why on Earth isn’t YouTube getting with the PiP program here? After all, pretty much any other video source on iOS and iPadOS supports the built-in PiP feature. You just tap the little two-arrows-pointing-diagonally-out icon, and it zooms to fill the screen, or tap the PiP icon to float the video in its window. 

The problem with this is that it doesn’t use YouTube’s own video player. That means it doesn’t have any control over the video playback. It can’t show an overlay of related videos when you pause playback, for example. 

"This feature honestly feels like table stakes at this point. I wish the YouTube app on iOS/iPadOS was a better citizen, or at the very least as good as other premium video apps on the platform,” said YouTube user DC on Twitter

Worse, from YouTube’s point of view, is that the built-in video player enables some features that YouTube prefers to charge for. You can play back just the audio, with the screen switched off, for example. That’s something that YouTube doesn’t usually allow without some kind of paid subscription.

In short, by supporting PiP, YouTube has to use Apple’s built-in player, which removes control. 

The Play App displayed on computer, laptop, tablet, and iPhone.

Play

Get It Now

There are a few ways to force YouTube to play either Picture-in-Picture or full screen. Apps that allow this come and go, but some solid options seem to keep working.

For example, you can use a browser bookmarklet, which is a kind of bookmark that sits on your browser’s bookmark bar, but instead of opening a web page, it runs a snippet of Javascript code. I have two of these, one to send the currently-playing video to PiP and one to full screen.

Another option is to view the videos on a non-YouTube page. Invidious is an open-source front-end to YouTube. There are several ways to access it, but for iOS users, the easiest way is via the excellent Play app, which lets you save YouTube links to watch later. Play has an option to open those links in Invidious in the Safari browser. The resulting page uses the built-in video player, so you can watch it how you like.

And yet another option is Vinegar, a browser extension for Safari on iPhone, iPad, and Mac, which forces YouTube (and other video services) to use the built-in player. Vinegar is particularly nice as it still supports subtitles and some other YouTube features, although if you read the app’s release notes, its developer seems to be stuck in an arms race as YouTube keeps trying to block it. 

It’s an ugly, confusing situation all around, but given that YouTube hasn’t allowed PiP for free accounts in the seven years since PiP launched on iOs, it’s unlikely to get better anytime soon.

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