14 September 2015

The future of TV is content, not apps

Last week Apple held its major annual event during which it launched a new round of hardware. As usual, the tech press gushed all over the announcements, ignoring the blatant lack of innovation, more evident this time around. There seems to be an increasing amount of shortsightedness at Apple, and being praised for everything they launch isn’t going to help the company. Take the new ‘features’ of the iPhone: a new camera sensor with more megapixel, 4K video capture and a new photo file format, with no increase in either the local storage or the iCloud back-up; the new models are heavier and thicker, but not for housing better batteries (their capacity in fact was reduced!), but to accommodate the latest Apple gimmick, 3D Touch.

Surface Tension comic 2012
A comic from Joel Watson called ‘Surface Tension’ accurately predicted the crowd’s reaction to the iPad Pro’s Smart Keyboard cover — in 2012.

There is now a larger iPad, optionally equipped with a keyboard and Pencil, as if that was the reason for declining tablet sales. Hasn’t Apple already tried to boost sales by offering a smaller model three years ago, accomplishing exactly nothing? Meanwhile nothing has changed in the App Store’s rules to help developers build sustainable businesses based on their apps. It’s no surprise Microsoft was invited on the stage to present Office apps optimized for iPad: they are among the few companies actually making money by selling software for the iPad. Other developers are openly declining to build apps for the iPad Pro, citing the lack of revenue opportunities. On top of that, the makers of Paper, a much-praised drawing app on the iPad, released an iPhone version last week as well, in a sense admitting sales for the tablet versions are unable to sustain their business – and, unlike most others, Paper had already diversified into accessories for Apple’s tablet.

The problems with TV as an app platform are multiple; in a sense the same issues faced by the iPad, but on a larger scale. The smartphone enabled new categories of apps and services because it’s a very personal and mobile device; people carry them along all the time, so it’s very natural to transfer tasks previously done on laptops to the smartphone. The TV on the other hand is exactly the opposite: neither mobile, because it sits in your living room, nor personal, because you share it with your family. The smartphone introduced a new interaction model through touch, but the TV is lacking in that department as well. Voice control is not yet sufficiently reliable and using a remote control to interact with apps feels like a bad joke. As reported recently, the Apple TV platform doesn’t support Webviews, so app development will face a steeper learning curve, something that could reduce the number of apps available in the store.

as it turns out, the remote control is mandatory for games as well, potentially affecting the diversity of games compatible with Apple TV

My contention, though, is that when it comes to the iPad Apple’s product development hammer is not enough. Cook described the iPad as A simple multi-touch piece of glass that instantly transforms into virtually anything that you want it to be; the transformation of glass is what happens when you open an app. One moment your iPad is a music studio, the next a canvas, the next a spreadsheet, the next a game. The vast majority of these apps, though, are made by 3rd-party developers, which means, by extension, 3rd-party developers are even more important to the success of the iPad than Apple is: Apple provides the glass, developers provide the experience.

That, then, means that Cook’s conclusion that Apple could best improve the iPad by making a new product isn’t quite right: Apple could best improve the iPad by making it a better platform for developers. Specifically, being a great platform for developers is about more than having a well-developed SDK, or an App Store: what is most important is ensuring that said developers have access to sustainable business models that justify building the sort of complicated apps that transform the iPad’s glass into something indispensable.

Ben Thompson

As Ben notes later in the article, this dynamic could very well apply to Apple TV. Ironically, it was Steve Jobs who said the future of TV is content – five years later this is more valid than ever, but somehow the current Apple leadership seems oblivious to it, as to the fact that smart TVs have been shipping with apps for years. Whether you open a site on a laptop or a smartphone app, these are simply means for people to access content that’s important to them, from breaking news or valuable research to the lives or their friends and family. The apps themselves are rarely a destination, merely the quickest way to find information or do a task. As new apps come along, people switch them effortlessly; there’s little loyalty in an app, but 100% loyalty in content. People tune in to Game of Thrones each year, into Facebook daily, but an app can be abandoned after a single use. There are rumors of original content on Apple TV, but it remains to be seen what they can bring to the table. Without compelling content to differentiate it, Apple TV is just another video player for someone else’s shows.

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