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Apps that Reveal the Apple TV’s Potential

Reports indicate that there are already over 1,000 apps for the fourth-generation Apple TV. Given the size of Apple’s developer ecosystem, that’s no surprise. Of course, the expected fare is there, like Netflix and Hulu, and games occupy a major share of the App Store’s real estate, but what other uses have developers found for the Apple TV? Apple’s new tvOS has quickly become a fascinating testbed, and I sought out some of the most interesting experiments to see where the Apple TV may be headed.

My apologies in advance for not linking to these Apple TV apps in some way, but Apple’s much-reviled App Store discovery problems are even worse in the Apple TV’s App Store — there’s no way to link to an Apple TV app at all. So if the apps I discuss don’t happen to be among those Apple is featuring at the moment, you’ll have to search for them, using tvOS’s clumsy onscreen keyboard.

More TV Than TV — “Interactive TV” has been bandied about for decades but has never achieved escape velocity. Cable and satellite providers have experimented with interactive content in the past, such as CNN Enhanced TV on Dish Network, but the experience was dreadful due to the sluggish interface.

The new Apple TV is the first device I’ve seen that seamlessly blends video with interactive content, and some of the most interesting early apps show what can be done on the platform.

You’re entitled to snicker when I say that QVC is among these, but it’s true. QVC’s free app displays a live stream of QVC’s never-ending infomercial, with interactive widgets that let you buy the products directly from your remote. It’s a good demo of what the Apple TV can do, and it’s one reason why QVC has become a juggernaut in online retail.

Another surprisingly good app that riffs on this theme is the free Fidelity app, which plays a Bloomberg TV stream in the lower-right corner, with interactive stock widgets and charts on the rest of the screen. You can also look up stocks and see summaries of the current day’s market movement.

Hardcore traders won’t likely be thrilled with the Fidelity app, since the main screen widgets can’t be customized. It displays the movers and shakers of the day, but doesn’t do much to help you monitor your own portfolio. Nonetheless, there’s a lot of potential here. What if the app displayed interactive stock widgets of whatever the Bloomberg commentators were talking about? A trader could leave it on the background, and when something interesting is mentioned, she could pick up the Siri Remote and click for more information.

Another example of this merger of video with interactivity is Zova, a workout video app. The app is free, but most of the content requires a $7.99-per-month subscription that’s still cheaper than a gym membership. What sets Zova apart from your old Jane Fonda workout tapes is that it can integrate into Apple’s Health app, and connect to the Apple Watch to display your heart rate on screen.

Unfortunately, setting up the Apple Watch to work with Zova isn’t easy. First, you must install the iPhone and Apple Watch apps. Then you have to create an account and password in the iPhone app. After that, you need to log into your account in the TV app, which is a pain because you have to enter your email address and password with the Apple TV’s clumsy onscreen keyboard. Finally, you have to load the watch app before starting a workout so the Apple TV
app recognizes the Apple Watch app. It’s a pain to set up, but pretty cool when it works.

Zova’s user-experience missteps show where Apple could improve integration between its devices. If the Apple Watch could communicate directly with the Apple TV, we wouldn’t have to jump through all those hoops.

Classical music fans will want to check out the free Touchpress app. It displays classical music performances in three windows: video, score, and beat map. You can view all three at once or select one to fill the screen.

Only a handful of apps so far combine streaming video with interactive content, but QVC, Fidelity, Zova, and Touchpress should give developers ideas about what can be done with the tvOS platform.

Better on the Big Screen? — When I saw that the Zillow real-estate app was coming to Apple TV, I was skeptical. But after using it a bit, it strikes me as an app that may be better on a TV, where multiple people can see it simultaneously. It’s one thing for my wife and me to look at home listings on our individual devices and pass links back and forth, but being able to view the same properties at the same time is a much better experience. We load up the app on the Apple TV, and it instantly shows us nearby homes that we can browse.

While Zillow is cool, I have a few issues with it. First, and this is a general comment about the service, we’ve found that many of its listings are outdated. Also, it lacks the iOS app’s map view that lets you figure out where houses are even when you don’t recognize the address. Finally, there’s no way to share or save houses without logging into a Zillow account, and that again requires typing login information on the TV.

The more stylish Airbnb app is gorgeously designed, and doesn’t require a clunky login, since it uses activation codes. The TV app displays a code, you log into your account on the Web, enter the code, and it links the TV app to your account. This is a better experience, but better yet would be a QR code that you would scan with your iPhone.

Airbnb offers categories to browse, such as Tropical Private Islands, Homes of Famous Authors, Lighthouses, and so on. You can also search for a specific place, but it’s not obvious: from the main screen, slide up on the Siri Remote’s touchpad to select “Where are you going?” Click that, and you see the search box.

While viewing a listing, you can click the touchpad to see details and press Play/Pause to save it to your favorites list. You’ll have to open the iOS app or visit the Web site to book your stay. The Airbnb app is one of the best Apple TV apps, and it could be a great place to ponder vacation ideas with the whole family.

Some apps, however, leave you wondering why they’re in the living room. I love PCalc, not because I need a heavy duty calculator regularly, but because James Thomson is so relentlessly focused on creating the absolute best calculator app. PCalc is available for your Mac, iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch, and it’s now available on your TV for $1.99.

While having a calculator on my TV is cool, I just don’t see many use cases. Math lessons with the kids, perhaps? In any case, I salute Thomson for boldly taking calculators where they’ve never gone before. As I write this, he’s working on game controller input for PCalc, because… why not?

Gaucho Software’s $9.99 Seasonality TV expands greatly on the Apple TV’s built-in weather functionality, adding sunrise and sunset times, dewpoint figures, wind speed, and animated weather maps. It’s a neat app for those whose curiosity about the weather extends well beyond talking heads on The Weather Channel.

The free Yummly app lets you browse and save recipes. Like Airbnb, it offers activation codes, bypassing clunky TV logins. I can see families looking through recipes together, but disappointingly, it offers no video content. There’s a lot of potential in this space: I would happily pay for a Food Network app that combines cooking shows with browsable recipes (does the Food Network still have cooking shows, or is it all reality TV and Guy Fieri now?).

While some apps work better than others on the Apple TV, another category of apps exists only to look cool. But on the big screen, that can be sufficient…

Screensavers and Other Silliness — Fireplace apps have quickly become the TV equivalent of flashlight apps: they’re all over the App Store and they’re all about the same. Cheesy as they are, they’re nice to have during the holidays for those of us without fireplaces. Fantastic Fireplace is free, and although it has in-app purchases for additional scenes, you can get by with the free scene — it’s not like a real fireplace changes much either.

There are all sorts of silly screensaver-type apps that display aquariums and other things, but the only one I’ve seen so far that’s worth the money is the $2.99 Earthlapse TV. It displays simulated, high-definition views of Earth from the International Space Station. Earthlapse TV uses 1.2 GB of space photos to create an impressive display on your Apple TV. By comparison, all other screensaver apps look kind of lame.

The Apple TV’s App Store also features a few art-oriented apps. Art Authority’s free Art Channel app features a virtual gallery of masterpieces that can be displayed as a slideshow. What’s neat about the Art Channel is that each thumbnail is displayed as a parallax icon, so you can manipulate the paintings for some interesting effects, especially with Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”

Another spin on the art app is the free Artsy Shows, which features pictures from current art exhibits in galleries around the world. Sadly, unlike the Art Channel, it doesn’t offer full-screen pictures or a slideshow.

Apple TV: What Works and What Doesn’t — I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s already available for Apple TV, and these are still early days, but I think we can see a clear picture of where Apple TV apps are heading in the near future.

Obviously, media playback and gaming are going to be the big draws. There are already a number of excellent games on the Apple TV, and we’re starting to see media apps from sources that weren’t available on the previous Apple TV, like automotive information company Edmunds. Unfortunately, media is still a bit limited — we’re awaiting apps for things like Amazon (don’t hold your breath, given the competition between Apple and Amazon), Pandora, Rdio, Sling TV, and Spotify.

But outside of that limited scope, there are some promising emergent capabilities that will differentiate the Apple TV from Apple’s other platforms, and even from competing set-top boxes.

If interactive video is ever going to take off, tvOS is where it will happen. It already has the speed and developer capabilities necessary. But the question is going to be when to use it. Some types of video lend themselves to interactivity, like a cooking show where you can click a button to save the recipe on your phone, while others don’t.

I circle back to the QVC app as an example of what works perfectly on the big screen. The video element is there, and it’s the sort of thing that lends itself to interactivity. Looking up merchandise on your phone adds friction to the experience, friction that disappears when you can buy that Pocket Backhoe directly from the TV.

There are many ways interactivity could remove friction. Many reality shows have some sort of voting process that requires a text message or online poll; why not integrate the function into the show? See a trailer for a cool-looking movie? Why not buy a ticket directly from the trailer? (Apple offers a movie trailer app, but it doesn’t let you buy tickets yet.)

Of course, interactivity must walk a fine line between clever and stupid. If every video stream starts displaying pop-ups begging viewers to buy what’s on screen, people will tune out. With the new Apple TV, that’s as simple as deleting the app, so developers have significant incentive to be judicious in what they ask of viewers.

The other thing to consider in tvOS development is the shared experience of the television. Television has become a fixture in living rooms around the world in part because it offers a shared experience: everyone in the room can view and comment on what’s happening on screen.

Airbnb and Zillow work as shared experiences because families can use them to ponder vacation destinations and explore possible house purchases. Similarly, an app like OpenTable might be good to have on a TV if you’re trying to get a group to agree on a dinner reservation. But a calculator?

The Apple TV also has plenty of potential in business, but developers haven’t explored this area much yet. A tvOS port of Keynote seems like a natural fit. Being able to plug an Apple TV in to a display and show presentations from iCloud could make the Apple TV a must-have in the enterprise.

Another use case for developers to consider is how some people like TVs to provide background ambiance. The built-in Aerial screensaver is nice in this regard, as are apps like Earthlapse TV. We’ll see a lot more in this category — all we need now is a motion-detecting switch so power isn’t being wasted when there’s no one in the room.

Many people like to leave a TV on for background noise, even if they aren’t actively watching it. Any audio or video streaming app can be good for this, but interactivity could prove useful here too, for voting for content (as in the NPR One app, where votes help direct the content you hear, see “FunBITS: NPR One Is Public Radio for the Twitter Generation,” 8 August 2014) or in saving something for later (as in Siri’s content reminders, see “Using Content Reminders in iOS 9,” 20 October 2015).

Rumors continue to swirl about Apple working on some kind of streaming TV service. It’s not unreasonable to think that interactivity could be a key selling point for both customers and advertisers. Services like Sling TV (see “FunBITS: Sling TV Is Made for Cord Cutters,” 20 February 2015) merely replicate the existing cable experience; the “appification” of video could change it entirely.

The new Apple TV is the company’s most exciting new platform since the iPhone. While the iPad has largely been treated as a big iPod touch and the Apple Watch is designed to minimize the amount of attention it receives, tvOS is already showing interesting new possibilities. I’m eager to see how developers take advantage of it, and how its evolution will affect Apple’s other platforms.

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