Apple released the new Apple TV in the fall. Despite the clunkier fatter physical appearance, the new Apple TV 4 features better performance, a cool new Siri Remote touchpad and an App Store. The App Store unlocks unlimited potential for the Apple TV as a content platform: rather than waiting for content deals between Apple and the networks, TV channels can release their own apps as they please. When the new Apple TV was announced, Tim Cook said the ‘future of TV is apps’. It is true this is a substantial improvement over the previous-generation Apple TV in terms of content (for UK residents like me, addition of BBC iPlayer is a huge win) however there are big user-experience issues with the app model that current Apple TV software does not address …
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Everything is segregated into apps, which means to watch TV, I have to constantly switch between the Home Screen and an app just to check the channels and content inside each sandboxed application. You have the cognitive load of remembering which app (Netflix, CBS, BBC, iTV, etcetera) contains the show you are looking for. Each app has completely different UI, so watching a show from one network against another can yield very different results in terms of enjoyment, because of the quality of the corresponding app each show comes from.
For my personal Apple TV watching habits, I have to contrast the user experience between Now TV and iPlayer. iPlayer is the good citizen here. It has rich media visuals with bright colours signifying each channel’s section. You can also jump straight to live broadcasts from the same view. There are also several category options to further refine and search for something interesting to watch. Most importantly, there is content to watch available instantly on application launch.
Now TV is terrible, by comparison. The categorization is somewhat random and requires a lot of scrolling grids to drill down to a show. If you finish watching an episode, the app returns you to the main menu and forgets which season you are currently in the middle of, requiring more fuss and micro-management after the end of each episode. These inconveniences add up. I want everything to be as elegant as the iTunes Store experience, regardless of who owns the content or where it is bought.
The biggest problem, however, with all of these apps is there is generally no way to favorite or bookmark specific shows. With most of the apps, there is no facility to say ‘I like this show, make it easier for me to find it in the future’. You have to hunt and peck every time you sit down on the couch. The Netflix app is a bit better because it has a ‘My List’ feature, but it’s only accessible from within the Netflix app. This is a huge step back in usability from a cable TV experience.
With a DVR, you simply record shows and they appear automatically collated into a menu of active subscriptions. When new episodes arrive, you can just scroll the list and watch them. There’s no jumping between apps or channels — it’s one simple list of new TV. You don’t have to initiate different actions and menus for every type of content. All networks and shows are basically treated equally.
This is my feature request for Apple TV. I want Apple to add a feature where I can subscribe to shows from any source into one centralised ‘TV Shows’ application. Sort of like an RSS reader, new episodes across all networks would automatically arrive in this one place — an ‘inbox’ of TV as it were. Think of it like bookmarks in a web browser. Clicking on a show could launch the native app with the corresponding TV show ready to watch with one click. I want unification in the same way a DVR works. Regardless of what company owns the rights to it, as longs I have paid for it, it should show up in this one single unified place. Imagine Newsstand … but for Apple TV television shows.
When it comes to watching TV, I can now open one canonical app and see everything that I’m interested in removing the need to hunt in each app for possible new stuff. Perhaps Apple could badge the Home Screen icon with the number of unwatched episodes automatically too, so you can know as soon as you wake the device if there is something ready to watch. There is no solution to this with current Apple TV. Theoretically, you could laboriously voice search for every show every time you sit down in front of the TV set but that’s just an unrealistic proposition … even if you did do that, it’s still a manual process to see if there are new episodes available.
Similarly, as more live content comes to Apple TV, there should be a centralized universal TV guide where users can go and see all live content currently airing, just like an EPG. Scroll through everything at once, no diving in and out of apps.
Right now, Apple TV has a limited form of this through Siri and universal search. It lets you think about TV shows and not the networks they come from. However, it isn’t permanent. A Siri request is forgotten as soon as it is dismissed. It does seem like Apple could build on these integrations for the hypothetical ‘TV Favorites’ app however. There may be some value in having a centralized Films library too, however you don’t return to the same films week after week so it’s less of a problem with that medium to find what you want separately.
Obviously, this feature request is a bit pie in the sky. I think Apple would love to have a feature like this; integration and simplification is the name of the game. However, I feel like TV networks would hate the idea of Apple showing their licensed content alongside everyone else’s in a UI controlled by Apple. This is the sticking point here: getting everyone to agree that it is okay. Even Siri universal search is limited to just a few partners in a handful of countries right now.
One small step Apple could take is to make this feature and publish an API for other third-party apps to integrate with. At least then, Apple has theoretically made the feature available. It would then be up to content providers to add support for the feature on a case-by-case basis.
The long-rumored Apple cable subscription service could be the answer. Although it wouldn’t have everything, a skinny bundle of 30-40 channels would probably be the single largest collection of TV shows on Apple TV (that isn’t the pay-per-episode iTunes Store). If Apple could present all of this content in one unified app interface, it would go a long way in replicating the traditional cable DVR experience.
However, as it stands today, having all TV separated by app with no central location to find everything is a pain. Sadly, the best answer is piracy. Using an app like Plex or Squire (pictured above) you can have everything collated into one consolidated experience, as long as you can be bothered to find the shows through illegal channels.
The future of TV is apps, but in addition, there needs to be a unifying layer to glue it all together into a coherent experience. Ultimately, Apple TV should be the answer for this and it probably will be in the future — the question is how soon?