Several weeks into using the new Apple TV, it becomes clearer than ever to me that this isn’t the experience Apple really had in mind. We know that ultimately, Apple hopes to break apart traditional bundling and give viewers more flexible models for assembling their own TV experience. But that model was not ready for the release of a hardware refresh that was long overdue. And so we got a half-baked Apple TV plan. But that isn’t the real problem here.
While opening the platform to third-party developers and games surely holds promise, too little of it is evident now. Indeed, there is so much missing here. First, it is just unwieldy, despite Apple’s upgraded Siri Remote. The new device broke the old Remote app on iOS, so most searches and typing entries are painful. The voice command system is implemented in such a narrow way with so few apps that it proves more frustrating than magical. The interface is barely touched in this upgrade.
Personally, I refuse to believe that the future of TV lies with navigating walls of icons. That is not a rethinking of the TV interface so much as Apple’s hope that the last medium’s successful business model (apps) will work on the bigger screen.
Apart from its greater openness, the Apple TV app structure is nothing new. I have been clicking on icons to open discrete content “channels” since my original Apple TV in 2007 and then on Google TV, Roku and Amazon Fire TV. In all that time and after all of those clicks, I remain unconvinced this is the way to watch TV. Loading an app, even CNN Go or CBS All Access (which I like), is substantially disconnected negatively from the experience of navigating a typical cable or satellite grid. It remains jagged and simply too interactive.
Most of these apps face the viewer with a wall of static, poorly captioned thumbnails that is all too familiar from any online video portal. The problem for me is that this is really just an extension of my day managing the Web with a mouse. Is this really how I also want to spend prime time?
There are two countervailing problems with appified TV: it is at once not linear enough and inelegant and unimaginative when it is interactive. Popping in and out of individual apps for discrete channels is inefficient and not immediately gratifying in most cases, compared to the traditional mode of dancing across live streams. But even if we concede that this front-end inefficiency is the price one pays for interactivity and on-demand choice, most of the TV apps currently on offer are actually less interactive and satisfying than their mobile counterparts. None of the apps I have tried from the major TV providers allows you to browse or queue clips as the main stream plays. This has become standard in phone apps, and yet no one seems to have figured out a way to do it within Apple TV.
Which is not to say that some providers are not thinking harder than most about what a better balance of lean back and lean in looks like. I am entranced by Reuters TV’s solution to the problem. Open this app and tell it how long you have -- five to 30 minutes. The app then customizes a video news catch-up to the time allotted and lets you swipe forward or backward in the story queue. This is closer to the actual reimagining of TV that the marriage of digital interactivity with the passive rituals of TV viewing seems to require.
Clearly, Siri’s voice search needs to be expanded, and content indexing needs to run wider and deeper on Apple TV. I presume this will happen, but until then the voice interface is a limited trick. More central to a truly better next-gen TV experience is a way to break through the silo walls that an app environment enforces. Something smarter needs to replace the classic TV grid but at that same operating system level. We need ways for related content to pop up across providers, perhaps via the overlays that viewers can call up via Siri. In addition, Apple TV needs to become more like its phone counterpart, perhaps via notifications. We need better ways for the apps themselves to reach out to their loyal viewers with notices of new and relevant content.
Ultimately, appification feels like a convenient stop-gap for an evolving TV format. I was fine with the idea of turning my iPad into a TV. I am less energized by my TV becoming more like my iPad, however.