Is Apple right — are apps the future of TV?

Is Apple right — are apps the future of TV?
Credit: Apple

If you believe Apple, tvOS and its App Store are the new hotness for your living room. Apple TV, now in its fourth iteration, is definitely better than its competition, but are we really destined for a future of apps via our TVs?

Apps aren’t unique to Apple TV

Outside of Chromecast, most streaming devices have some sort of on-screen ‘app’ associated with content. You could rightly consider any square on your screen linking to content an app; Roku has them, as does Fire TV.

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The problem is, those apps are an effect of the medium. By and large, they exist to feed you media, not an actual app experience.

And that’s where the problems begin. Apps should bring us content, but the static barrage of TV shows, hot-take videos and movies don’t make TV apps very good. Other platforms with non-media apps (like games) often pale in comparison to proper mobile apps, too.

Apps aren’t channels. The first platform to fully recognize that will have a leg up on its competition.

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The good

The great thing about Apple TV apps is that they often have a counterpart iOS app. It makes what you see on the TV immediately recognizable, and there’s little learning curve outside of figuring your new remote out.

CARROT Weather is the best weather app for Apple TV, and I’m not saying that because I enjoy its snark. It has companion apps for iOS and OS X, and enough gamification to make interacting with it a pleasure. Seriously, poke its ocular sensor.

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There are other weather apps for Apple TV — even some from big-names like Weather Channel — but CARROT is interactive and fun, even when you’re passively checking the weather. When you interact, it becomes something more akin to a proper mobile or desktop app, and that’s special.

Learning apps like Coursera also add a layer of complexity to Apple TV outside of streaming media. I’m definitely just watching videos, but also learning a thing or twelve. Those types of apps seem much better suited to the living room; Coursera doesn’t appeal to me on mobile.

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The ‘meh’

Apps that lack excitement are, oddly, the backbone of Apple TV. If it didn’t have Netflix, we’d immediately flip all the way out.

A streaming media staple, Netflix’s experience on Apple TV is nothing special. The layout, actions and content are all the same as on my Roku.

HBO Now is also plain-jane on Apple TV. I find nothing compelling about it compared to its Roku app. Media apps bring nothing exciting to the table.

Apps that should shine, like AirBNB, just don’t. I can peruse its curated list of temporary hostels around the world, but I can only favorite them. There isn’t even a search function! Unless I want to stay in a yurt in Yuma, AirBNB is useless.

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The same can be said for Periscope, which was highly anticipated. It feeds a curated list of some streamers to your TV, but nothing more. No offense China, but I have zero concern for what the good people of Hong Kong have to say regarding their day-to-day routines.

Some apps just don’t seem to fit Apple TV. While I adore PCalc on my iOS devices (and Apple Watch), I can’t imagine a time I’d want to use it on the TV. The controls are just not intuitive enough (and yeah, I know the developer is working on a new control method), and staring at a massive calculator is just weird.

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What’s missing?

Seriously — where is Maps? Why is it not available for Apple TV? Even with Apple TV’s lame text entry, perusing Maps via Apple TV would be nice. It’s indicative of a larger problem — Apple TV is missing a lot of content right now.

The blame can be placed squarely on Apple for the dearth of apps for TV right now, even its own. It offers no clean experience for text entry (can’t link keyboards, your phone or tablet), no monetization (can’t buy stuff with Apple Pay, even on your phone) and demands support for its remote (which isn’t great for gaming, an entirely different discussion).

What’s really missing is functionality, and that falls squarely at Apple’s feet.

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Are apps on TV hopeless?

Nope.

CARROT is doing it right, but that’s partly because its design allows for excellence on TV. It’s like a weather cake with icing, and once you’ve used it, you remember how much cake without icing sucks.

Netflix and HBO Now won’t get better, but that’s not to say either are bad apps. They’re a conduit to media, but if you don’t care much for the layout of either, Apple TV won’t help you.

We’re also in the earliest days of Apple TV’s existence. It’s quite literally a week old. To that, we can assume most of the apps that aren’t great simply ported existing apps to Apple TV without really considering the platform, and those with a wait-and-see attitude will be coming.

The functionality issue lingers, too. Apple will undoubtedly solve for that x, but y simpler features like Apple Pay and a robust text entry workaround were left out to begin with is beyond me (you will suffer my math jokes and like it, dear readers).

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The upside is coming

If you’re looking for something to watch Netflix on, no. Apple TV is already much more dynamic than other ‘streaming boxes,’ and has a much larger upside, but doesn’t have a ‘hard sell’ it can make  to consumers just yet. Expect some kick-ass features to land before the holiday shopping rush, though.

Forget — just for a second — what other streaming boxes can do, and know that it takes developers to make that stuff happen. Nobody will (or has, or should) derail their train to support a new platform that’s focussed on streaming. Angry Birds landed on Roku and it went nowhere. Fire TV has games — good games — but support for the platform is shaky at best. Lessons learned.

With Apple TV, existing iOS apps can be ‘ported’ over to tvOS. Most of the apps we find ‘meh’ right now only brought features of the iOS app to tvOS, which can change far easier on Apple TV than it can for other platforms.

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For $150 or more, you’re buying the future. That’s the core argument, here — the future.

Apple is right to say apps are the future of TV. They’re not great now, but there’s no visible glass ceiling either. Everything can change with software updates, both for apps and the Apple TV alike. In a week, the tvOS app store has blossomed, and Apple added Music playback (with Beats 1). It’s evolving quickly, and that’s exciting.

If you don’t buy an Apple TV now, you’ll want to in the near future, I suppose. It’s draw will depend on great app experiences, and there are already flashes of that.

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