There's been a lot of talk and anticipation surrounding the revamped Apple TV that is rumored to be announced on September 9th (and which was earlier rumored to be announced back in June). Much of the excitement and focus has been around Siri / voice search, and the possibility for a game console-like platform for iOS apps. And yes, those are exciting possibilities! But personally, I'm much more excited about how the fundamental assumptions of an Apple TV could make it much more than just another place to buy and use apps; it could literally create a whole new paradigm for building and using apps that I think could be huge for both users and developers.
Before I describe what I mean, let's first look at the underlying assumptions that influence the development and use of every app built for iOS devices today (iPhones, iPads, iPods):
- iOS devices have limited battery life. Throughout the design of iOS are decisions made to reduce and minimize battery consumption at all times. One primary way this happens is by heavily limiting multitasking so that for the most part, apps only run one at a time while the user is actively interacting with them in the foreground, with very tightly controlled exceptions to get small updates in the background.
iOS devices have limited connectivity. Sure, there are plenty of occasions where a device is connected to wifi and has significant bandwidth available. But every app designed for iOS today has to be (and is) designed to function with slow or no Internet connectivity as well.
iOS apps must be discovered in the app store, downloaded and installed to be available to users (unlike, for example, web apps). In order to use an iOS app, the user must navigate to its icon, or remember its name to tell Siri or Spotlight to launch it. Analytics companies have shown that a large percentage of downloaded apps are never opened even once, or are opened once and then forgotten thereafter. And that's even if they were lucky enough to be downloaded in the first place!
These assumptions have influenced everything about how iOS apps are designed and what they do up until this point.
These assumptions have influenced everything about how iOS apps are designed and what they do up until this point. And now, enter the Apple TV as a new apps platform with completely different fundamentals:
It’s always plugged in and never “runs out of battery”. This means that unthrottled, full background multitasking is on the table. Note that iOS devices have had the horsepower for some time to do as much multitasking as you could wish for, but battery life has been the main reason that Apple imposed limits on it.
It’s always connected to a wifi or ethernet network. That means wide, generally uncapped bandwidth for all apps at all times.
It’s built into a TV interface, which means people will use it while sitting on a couch and seeking out entertainment or information in a more leisurely, or less purposeful manner than is typical on a phone, or even on a desktop or tablet computer.
Because of these different underlying factors, iOS apps on the Apple TV have the potential to be always running, always populated with data and content, and always just a “click” away from the user. In other words, while much attention has been devoted to talking about TV channels as apps, I think the more exciting opportunity is apps as TV channels.
In other words, while much attention has been devoted to talking about TV channels as apps, I think the more exciting opportunity is apps as TV channels.
Let’s look at how using Twitter and Vimeo on a current iOS device might compare to using these apps a “channels” on an Apple TV.
Currently, my steps for using the apps on the iPhone look something like:
- Swipe to the Twitter app icon
- Launch the Twitter app (wait for launch animation / splash screen)
- See old tweets while the app connects to download new tweets
- Scroll to newest tweets (or be automatically scrolled) once they are downloaded
- Press the home button
- Swipe to the Vimeo app icon
- Launch the Vimeo app (wait for splash screen)
- Watch loading indicators for different videos' thumbnails
- Tap a video, wait for it to buffer
- Tap done, scroll through other recent videos that load thumbnails with small delays, etc.
With an Apple TV that treats apps like “channels”, I imagine the experience would be something like:
- Open my “Social” app group / channel group
- The first screen is Twitter, already populated with the latest tweets on my timeline and a sidebar showing top trending tweets and the most talked about current events.
- If at a glance, I’m not interested in looking further, I click the “next channel” button on the remote and Vimeo pops up, already loaded with thumbnails and suggested videos that are pre-cached and ready to start playing immediately.
- If I’m not interested I keep clicking “next channel” on the remote. And this is the cool part: apps that I might normally forget to open and check will appear as channels, already populated with their best current data or content front and center, so I can quickly surf through them until I find something I like. Maybe it’s a cool update with photos or video from the great NASA app I always forget to check. Maybe it’s a podcast that looks really interesting. The point is that installed apps will suddenly have a huge discoverability advantage, because they don’t require me to remember them, find them, launch them, wait for them to load, and possibly feel like I wasted that time if their content didn't interest me at that moment.
With the “apps as channels” model, apps could focus heavily on content and optimizing what content is suggested, preloaded and pre-cached. The channel surfing paradigm would allow apps that might normally get zero chances or just one chance to engage a user’s interest suddenly get many chances.
Even beyond playing games on the TV, gaming apps could provide pre-cached replays of recent matches or story updates that can instantly engage a user, even if they aren’t planning to play the game.
All of this adds up to whole new ways of thinking about and designing apps that go far beyond just “phone apps on a TV screen”.
Other things I could imagine or expect Apple might do:
Implement Handoff, so that if I want to reply to a tweet that I’m looking at on the TV, I just unlock my iPhone or iPad and it’s already loaded up and ready for me to start typing.
Or, going further, allow the current / foreground Apple TV app to proactively stream data or content onto any nearby mobile device so that I can get second screen information (comments on a YouTube video, for example) on my iPad while still watching the main video or content on the big screen.
Have an optional “app genius” that will proactively, but temporarily, download different apps that it thinks you might like onto the Apple TV based on other apps you use. These apps and their content will appear at the end of your “channel surfing” lineup, and if you use one of them for more than a minute while surfing (instead of just flipping past it), the Apple TV can expose a simple interface allowing you with a single tap or click to mark it as an app you want to keep. Similarly, there can be a single tap or click to indicate you do not want that app at all. The Apple TV would delete unwanted “genius” apps, and would routinely clear out suggested but unsaved apps and replace them with newly downloaded suggestions. This, again, would be a huge benefit for both users and developers by surfacing apps that normally might not get the attention they deserve without a complicated discovery process.
I really hope Apple seizes and pursues the opportunity not just for bigger-screen iOS apps, but a completely new paradigm for app discovery, usage, and function.
Ultimately, I have no idea what the Apple TV as an app platform will look like or include. But considering the new benefits it brings to the table in terms of unlimited “battery life”, and always-available bandwidth, I really hope Apple seizes and pursues it as an opportunity not just for bigger-screen iOS apps, but a completely new paradigm for app discovery, usage, and function.