The Apple TV is no longer just a hobby.
When the long-anticipated fourth generation Apple TV hardware begins shipping this week, it will be accompanied by a new remote control; a new operating system; a new interaction model; and, most importantly, a new software development kit (SDK) and App Store.
This represents the biggest expansion of the Apple ecosystem since the iOS SDK and App Store were launched alongside the iPhone 3G in 2008. Until now, the Apple TV was just a media streaming device for content from the iTunes Store and Apple’s closest media partners. As with the original App Store launch, developers have been ushered into an area that had previously been cordoned off, now free to reach a massive audience with disruptive new apps and experiences of their own.
To quote Apple: “Apps are the future of television.”
But Apple is not alone in making this realization…
The New Battleground
“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed” — William Gibson
The new Apple TV is hardly the first device to bring interactive computing to the television, or even apps to a modern media streaming device. Early personal computers (including Apple’s) repurposed the TV as a computer monitor. Gaming consoles still do this today. Broadband Interactive TV hype was trumpeted on the front cover of Byte Magazine in the early 1990s. Remember Web TV? …and Internet Appliances? …and Windows Media Center?
As with so many things in technology, everything old is new again. The desire to conquer general purpose computing in the living room is decades old, but the timing and execution for widespread mainstream adoption may finally be right.
Fractures are emerging in a stagnant media distribution system as services like HBO Now and Netflix splinter and supplant the traditional cable TV bundle. Cable subscribers are increasingly cutting the cord and opting for broadband only plans. The average American consumer now spends more time in apps than watching TV. Vinyl may be making a comeback, but subscription music services are the new normal. Smartphone users are primed with expectations set by modern smartphone apps and app stores. Competition among smartphone manufacturers has led to smaller, faster, cheaper computer components ready to be repurposed elsewhere.
Much as the Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) and Pocket PC were smaller waves before the Smartphone tsunami, the long line of living room computing contenders may finally be about to see a perfect storm in the form of app store equipped media streaming devices.
The new Apple TV launches amid a crowd of new competitors from Roku, Google and Amazon. Even modern HDTVs, such as those from Samsung and Vizio, now bundle embedded media streaming capabilities and apps. Today’s gaming consoles offer media streaming and live game streaming from home computers and the cloud.
Apple’s key differentiators are its ecosystem, its focus on the user experience and the consistency of that experience.
It has been over a decade since the iTunes Store first launched, and in that time Apple has built a massive media content library in partnership with thousands of film, television and music studios. Through the App Store and Apple Developer Program, Apple has engaged hundreds of thousands of developers on their platform and redefined the nature and nomenclature (“apps”) of software distribution. More importantly, Apple has amassed hundreds of millions of users who have purchased billions of songs, millions of movies and TV shows, and billions of apps. In the three months since it launched, the new Apple Music subscription service has already acquired 15 million (6.5 million paying) users.
Because the Apple TV allows users to stream their past iTunes Store purchases, customers who bought into the Apple ecosystem gain even more value today out of content they purchased ten years ago—a radical departure from the expensive media format shifts (ex. VHS→DVD→Blu-ray) of the past. Along those same lines, the new Apple TV App Store encourages developers to list their iOS and tvOS applications as a single “universal purchase.” Apple Music users who have become accustomed to asking Siri to play a song on their phone or watch will now be able to ask the same (and much more) of their television.
The momentum and scale of the iTunes Store, App Store and Apple Music play to the new Apple TV’s advantage. Apple’s stewardship of past content purchases paired with exclusive system level integration helps ensure its existing customers are more likely to stay within the Apple ecosystem.
Historically, app developers have taken an iOS-first or even iOS exclusive approach. Given the significant overlap in APIs between the iOS and tvOS SDKs, app developers have additional incentive to build apps for the new Apple TV.
The Apple TV SDKs, Apple Development Agreement, Apple TV Human Interface Guidelines and App Store approval process continue a strong commitment to preserving the intended user experience and protecting user privacy. While these are sometimes perceived as developer-hostile, they are the embodiment of Apple’s consumer-oriented focus, ensuring their customers can trust they will receive the experience they paid for. In recent months, Apple has increasingly invoked a strong stance on user privacy and security as both a moral imperative and a competitive advantage.
That’s not to say Apple’s media and app distribution services are unique—all of its primary competitors feature their own media and app distribution system. Nothing keeps Apple’s media and software partners from creating channels and apps for its competitors platforms (and most do). However, Apple operates here from a position of strength—maintaining its early lead through exclusive access. Content purchased from the iTunes Store is only available via Apple products (iTunes, iOS devices and the Apple TV). While you can find Google Play and Amazon Instant Video apps on the iOS App Store, you won’t find an Apple iTunes Store app on Google or Amazon’s app stores. (The upcoming Apple Music for Android is a rare and interesting exception—perhaps owing to Apple’s late entry into the subscription music market.)
It remains to be seen if Google will offer a Google Play app for the new Apple TV as it does for iOS devices. Amazon, having recently expanded its Amazon Prime Music and Video streaming services by producing its own exclusive TV programming, did not appear on the previous generation Apple TV. Given the recent news that Amazon has banned the sale of Apple and Google media streaming devices on their store, it seems unlikely that one will be forthcoming for the new Apple TV.
Time will tell whether the new Apple TV and its App Store will spark the same kind of commercial success as the iPhone or iPad, but the recent convergence of innovation amongst Apple and its competitors in this area signals that the battleground has expanded from the smartphone to the living room. As each competitor seeks to leverage its own exclusive platforms and content, we are set to witness a new era of fierce competition for a living room audience primed to embrace apps and make a transition away from traditional cable TV. These platforms are going mainstream and it will be as essential for businesses to create a presence on the new Apple TV as it was the iPhone and iPad.
The New Hardware
The last time the Apple TV received a hardware update was in early 2012. Historically, the Apple TV has experienced a slower 2-3 year release cycle compared to the annual tick-tock cycle we associate with flagship Apple products like the iPhone and iPad. The new fourth generation hardware is a significant upgrade, leveraging myriad advancements made in the intervening years by Apple’s products in the hypercompetitive mobile device market.
The new Apple TV is powered by the dual-core Apple A8, an Apple-designed 64-bit ARM based system on a chip processor first used in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus—a significant upgrade from the previous edition’s iPhone 4S era single-core Apple A5. It includes 2GB of RAM and comes in two models, offering 32GB and 64GB storage. It offers wireless and wired networking capabilities via 802.11ac Wi‑Fi and 10/100 ethernet. Developers can use the new USB-C port to connect to the Apple TV for development and debugging purposes. The new model is slightly taller than the previous two generations, but it is still a diminutive little box measuring 3.9” by 3.9” by 1.4” and weighing in at just under a pound (at 15 ounces).
It features HDMI 1.4 output at 720p and 1080p resolution with support for Dolby Digital Plus 7.1 audio (up from Dolby Digital 5.1). It adds support for HDMI-CEC (Consumer Electronics Control) extensions that allow the Apple TV to send commands over HDMI to automatically turn on CEC-enabled TVs, switch to the correct input and control audio volume.
Competitors like the Amazon Fire and Roku 4 have introduced support for streaming 4k video, but it appears Apple has decided to defer 4k resolution support for now. We can only speculate as to why, but we imagine it relates to a cost-benefit tradeoff for an already ambitious hardware and software reboot given the relatively limited availability of 4k video content and the current state of 4k HDTV market penetration (predicted to reach ~10% of all US homes by 2016). This more deliberate pacing is not unprecedented, as 1080p support was only just introduced in the previous generation Apple TV. For now, as ever, it appears Apple has chosen to compete based on user experience rather than tech specs.
The most tangible change accompanying the new Apple TV hardware is the introduction of the new Siri remote with Touch surface. It combines a small glass touchpad and six physical buttons (Menu, Home, Siri, Play/Pause, Volume Up and Volume Down). The touchpad allows for precise multi-directional navigation through single-finger gestures and clicks. The remote also incorporates dual microphones for use with Siri natural language voice interactions. Internally, it includes an accelerometer and gyroscope, allowing developers to track movements for motion-based control.
The new remote communicates with the Apple TV over Bluetooth 4.0 (rather than relying on the IR transmitter as in the previous generation), eliminating previous line-of-sight issues and enabling its new voice and data communication features. It still includes an IR transmitter which can now be used to control TVs and A/V home theater receivers.
Ditching the replaceable coin battery used in the previous model, the new remote includes a built-in lithium ion battery which Apple claims will last months on a single charge. The battery can be charged via the lightning connector on the bottom edge of the remote.
There will be two versions of the remote—one with Siri natural language voice recognition, the other with on-screen text-based search. At launch, the Siri remote will only be available in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan. Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
First announced as part of Apple’s September 2015 Event, the new Apple TV was made available for early access to lucky Apple Developer Program members via a multi-round lottery. Apple began accepting tvOS apps for review last Wednesday in preparation for the launch of the tvOS App Store that will accompany the release of the new Apple TV hardware.
The new Apple TV was made available to consumers for pre-order Monday (October 26) with shipments set to begin at the end of this week.
Boldly pursuing the higher-end higher-margin market, Apple’s offering is priced significantly higher than its competitors, at $149 (32GB) / $199 (64GB), up from the previous $99 for the third-generation Apple TV (now reduced to $69).
The New Software
The new Apple TV introduces an iOS-derived operating system called tvOS that runs exclusively on the new hardware. Although the previous generation Apple TVs received multiple firmware upgrades and visual refreshes over their lifetimes, this is the most ambitious revision to the look and feel of the Apple TV user interface to date.
Visually, the UI has been refined to match current iOS 9 design language standards. Black backgrounds with starkly contrasting text and icons, bright blue selection borders, and jarring fade-to-black screen transitions are out. They’ve been replaced with softer colors, semi-translucent layers, more subtle selection indicators, and animated transitions that promote continuity. Helvetica Neue has been replaced with San Francisco, a new Apple-designed typeface initially created to meet the Apple Watch’s demanding readability constraints, now quickly being adopted across Apple’s entire line of operating systems.
More than simply an aesthetic update, all of the user interface interactions have been rethought in terms of new touchpad and voice-based interactions made possible by the new Siri remote.
For example, Apple invented a new kind of UI component for tvOS it has dubbed the “parallax icon.” A parallax icon is composed of multiple flat image layers that are rendered with a parallax effect, whereby each layer is shifted independently with simulated lighting to create the illusion of three-dimensionality and depth of field. tvOS uses this in place of bright blue selection borders as a more tangible means of indicating that an item is selected as the target for interaction. As a user moves his or her thumb on the touchpad, the parallax effect provides immediate and continuous feedback that a parallax icon is focused.
Apple has integrated support for Siri voice-based commands throughout the tvOS experience. This includes voice search, which allows users a simple way to search for content across all of their applications using natural language and narrow down search results with follow-up voice commands. Users can also ask Siri for weather forecasts and sports scores at any time and the results will be shown in a content overlay. As an alternative to navigating through a soon-to-be crowded home screen, users can even ask Siri to launch applications by name.
The most significant change introduced with tvOS is the addition of the App Store and the release of a widely available Apple TV Software Development Kit (SDK). After years of rumors that this would be the “one more thing” at Apple’s annual Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC), Apple has finally fulfilled a developer community wish that dates at least as far back as the launch of the second generation Apple TV. Previously, the only third-party applications on the Apple TV were developed by a select few partners in close collaboration with Apple using a private SDK (much like things stand with Apple CarPlay today).
The tvOS SDK is included in Xcode 7.1 and allows developers to write native tvOS applications in Objective C and Swift leveraging familiar iOS and new tvOS-specific frameworks. It includes a tvOS simulator which can be controlled via a simulated Siri, remote or optionally paired with a real Siri remote over Bluetooth. Developers can also associate an Apple TV with their registered Apple Developer Membership account, connect to the Apple TV hardware via its USB-C port, and create a provisioning profile to test and debug applications on the actual device.
Apple has added tvOS application support to TestFlight, allowing developers to share pre-release builds of applications with internal and external users for testing purposes. Apple has also added tvOS application support to Apple iTunes Connect, allowing developers to bundle tvOS applications with their iOS applications as “universal purchases” or offer them for standalone sale. (tvOS applications are not binary compatible with iOS—there are no “universal applications” like there are with the iPhone and iPad.)
Developers have two options to consider when it comes to building apps for the tvOS platform—TVMLKit client-server applications or traditional native applications.
TVML screen templates are composed from an array of predefined simple and compound elements that offer limited styling capabilities via style tags. It is important to note that TVML is more of a serialization format for a fixed set of tvOS-specific layouts and components—in terms of customizability, think Keynote templates, not HTML.
TVMLKit client applications typically request their TVML and TVJS content from a web server. This means TVMLKit applications can be updated with new content on the fly without going through the traditional App Store approval process. For this class of application, TVML and TVJS are the quickest way to build audio and video streaming applications that conform to the tvOS look and feel.
For more complex applications and games, developers can instead opt to write traditional native apps in Objective-C and Swift using the same tools, techniques and frameworks they use for iOS development. It is even possible to add a new tvOS target to an existing iOS application. For example, the tvOS SDK includes a sample SpriteKit game that targets Mac OS, iOS and tvOS with a shared codebase.
The tvOS SDK includes many familiar UIKit classes such as UIView, UIViewController, UIButton, UITextField, UITableView, UICollectionView, etc. However, the visual appearance and interaction model for common UIKit interface elements have changed to better suit the tvOS screen size and accommodate primary input via touchpad. These components also implement the new touchpad focus management API, exposed through the UIFocusEnvironment protocol.
The iOS SDK and tvOS SDK contain many frameworks in common, but it is important to note that there are differences in terms of which framework classes are available on each platform.
The New Challenges
The interaction model for the Apple TV is significantly different than the keyboard and cursor model used for laptop and desktop computers, and the direct multi-touch model used in smartphones and tablets. The tvOS UI is an example of a 10-foot user interface, where the user stares at a large screen in the distance and controls it with a single finger from a handheld remote they navigate by feel.
Luckily, Apple has already solved many of the challenges this kind of interface model poses. tvOS features larger text and buttons to facilitate readability. Its built-in apps, standard TVML template designs and Human Interface Guidelines emphasize the importance of simplicity, clarity and maximizing the display of useful data rather than UI chrome. We typically associate a trackpad with cursor oriented navigation—this would be exceptionally awkward at such a large distance from the screen. Instead, Apple invented a unique new focus management solution that interprets thumb swipes across the touchpad to intuitively traverse an invisible navigation hierarchy. Apple also invented parallax icons as a less obtrusive and more tactile method of indicating selection state for icons, photos and images.
Apple implements that focus engine as a standard feature of the tvOS SDK’s UIKit and TVML runtime. However, apps that use SpriteKit, Metal or OpenGL ES will currently need to implement their own navigational or focus management approaches.
For those users in localities where it is available, the Apple TV also offers global Siri voice-based interactions. Unfortunately, tvOS does not currently provide Siri dictation for UIKit text input fields or offer developer access to the microphone. Since iOS 8 recently added Siri dictation support to the iPhone and iPad, we can anticipate this feature might be added to tvOS in the future.
Because the Apple TV will typically reside in the living room, developers are encouraged to develop multi-user applications. Actually achieving that will require creative design thinking and innovation on the part of app developers. Most users will likely only have the standard Siri remote.
Further, Apple TV games are required to be playable with the standard remote control. Today’s gamepads (even the MFi game controllers that can be paired with the Apple TV) typically offer multiple buttons, paddles, thumbsticks and D-pads. Game developers will need to rethink and simplify their interaction models to participate on this platform.
There has been a great deal of speculation around the motives behind a very significant omission from the tvOS SDK: UIWebView. This means that native tvOS applications cannot present HTML/CSS/JS content within their applications using this standard WebKit wrapper component. Many plausible reasons have been posited for its removal, including that it was meant to enhance security, to encourage that apps are tailored to tvOS, or to control the negative ways web-based advertising might impact the tvOS experience.
However, it may simply turn out that adapting existing web content for consumption via a 10-foot user interface is just hard to do and that Apple doesn’t want to open this door until they can provide the user experience they want for their users. One third-party developer open-sourced a proof-of-concept web browser for tvOS that demonstrated that WebKit can actually run on the device, but the modern web’s expectation of direct mouse and touch events required switching to a cursor based interaction model. An Apple developer recently tweeted in response, “…it’s non-trivial. We tried. We will keep trying.”
tvOS also differs in the way it handles data storage. Apple TV apps can cache data locally but they have no access to persistent local storage and must instead store user data in iCloud (or on their own servers). Further, the maximum size for an Apple TV app is limited to 200MB; any additional assets must be packaged and loaded via On-Demand Resources that are hosted on the App Store and downloaded separately from the main application bundle.
Despite these immediate challenges, the future looks bright.
The New Opportunity
Apple is betting that the future of television revolves around apps not channels. Given the rise of music subscription services, cord-cutting, standalone access to premium network television content, and video streaming services that produce their own exclusive content, the momentum has never been stronger in the favor of media streaming devices like the new Apple TV. The tvOS App Store is set to kick off a new gold rush where third-party developers push the boundaries and create a broad range of disruptive new experiences.
Like the iTunes Store did for music before it, the tvOS App Store lowers the bar for small content producers to sidestep incumbent distribution systems and access larger audiences. (This possibility is probably why we have heard speculation that the current timing for the tvOS App Store’s release is intended to ramp up pressure for content deals with traditional media companies for a rumored Apple streaming TV service.)
The new Siri features included in tvOS hint at the possibilities and untapped potential for interactions beyond the traditional media consumption role of the living room television. Now that the Apple TV is no longer what Apple once termed “a hobby” (and faces a whole host of competitors), we can expect competition to occur at a much faster pace akin to the iPhone and iPad. As the new Apple TV evolves, it will be interesting to see how Apple integrates other key technologies like HomeKit, FaceTime and Continuity.
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The new Apple TV is set to become a one-stop hub for a broad range of experiences, everything from quick glances for vital information to new kinds of immersive entertainment, communication, education, and e-commerce experiences.
The potential for tvOS apps goes well beyond media consumption and gaming—we can expect to see enterprise dashboards; collaboration and planning tools; dashboards and configurators for the Internet of Things (IoT); educational courses, training videos and manuals; innovative use of ResearchKit to facilitate life-changing medical studies; and new kinds of online showrooms and storefront experiences.
At Universal Mind, we are inventors and connectors. Technologists, designers, strategists and developers, all working together to create digital experiences that make an impact on people’s work and life, for the better. We can help you chart your path in these new waters and turn this opportunity into another vital channel to reach your customers. We have had our eye on the Apple TV for a long time—some of our designers and developers will have apps of our own in the tvOS App Store on launch day.
Your customers are waiting for you in their living rooms… where are you?