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The Case Against an Apple TV SDK

It seems just last year we were on the verge of WWDC, wondering whether Apple might release an Apple TV SDK. Oh, that’s right, it was last year that we were talking about this. And there’s still no SDK, but hope springs annual.

Playing a bit with the Roku SDK has me reconsidering if and why an Apple TV SDK makes sense, and I think it boils down to one simple question:

What can you do better on an Apple TV than you can do with the iPhone or iPad you’re already using?

Now before you quickly retort that a given Apple TV user might not already have an iPhone or iPad, let me just stop you right there. Of course they have one, and the reason is that if they don’t, they’re doing it wrong. Doing AirPlay from an iOS device is not only the best thing an Apple TV does, it’s the only thing the Apple TV does that is in any way interesting. To have an Apple TV by itself means to just have the same content — Netflix, NBA/MLB/NHL, Hulu Plus — that every other set-top box, game console, and Smart TV has. Apple TV also lacks channels ubiquitous elsewhere, like HBO Go, Pandora, and Crunchyroll, and has few exclusives outside of its ability to play DRM-ed iTunes content (honest question: is buying shows from iTunes still a thing with cord-cutters? Is Amazon Instant as or more popular at this point?). So, I don’t think it’s at all a stretch to say that the overwhelming appeal of an Apple TV is to extend the reach of iOS devices already owned by a given user.

So, assuming that we already have an iPhone in our pocket, what would make us use an app on the Apple TV instead? Think seriously about this, because that means walking into the living room, turning on the TV and waiting for it to warm up, hitting the “source” switch to go to the Apple TV input, finding the Apple TV remote and pressing a button to turn it on, arrowing over to our app, and starting it up.

In the time it’s taken us to do all this, we’ve already exceeded the average run-time of many iOS utility apps, like weather apps, stock checkers, and Twitter/App.Net clients. We could be done checking the Weather app on on the iPhone in less time than it would take to start that app on an Apple TV.

Walking through this line of thinking, I found I eliminated the use-case for entire categories of apps. It’s perhaps not surprising that the Apple TV doesn’t include any such apps. This isn’t a “third party opportunity”, it’s just an idea that sounds good on paper but pans out badly in real life.

It’s pretty telling that these kinds of apps have flopped elsewhere. On Roku, with its public SDK, there are only a handful of utility applications, so few that they’re lumped in with screensavers in Roku’s categorization. Furthermore, you can tell by the app titles and their programmer-art icons that this style of app has attracted only minimal interest from developers, and it’s hard to imagine users are falling over themselves to buy lottery-update apps or Shakespeare quote screensavers. There are a handful of non-video apps in the other categories — Weather Underground exists in News & Weather for example — but for the most part, there’s very little of interest outside of streaming media on the Roku platform, despite the wide-open nature of its SDK.

Casual games aren’t much better on Roku, and outside of Angry Birds and a few other titles developed by Roku’s special friends (special enough to have access to the native SDK), the pickings are pretty weak. Not that this is just Roku’s problem — I noticed that DirecTV recently gave up on trying to get us to play casual games on their DVRs, and pulled its “Game Lounge” channels, explaining that we’re all playing those games on our iPhones instead.

So why would we expect anything to be different on Apple TV? If there really were an SDK, would we get anything better than Lottery Number Picker and Board Game App Amateur Hour?

Remember, thanks to AirPlay, lots of potential uses of the big Apple TV screen are already available, just by writing an iOS app and using the ATV as a second screen. For example, Panic’s Status Board can show its big friendly displays on an Apple TV via AirPlay. While it’s sensible to complain that we’re using two devices for the sake of one screen, keep in mind that an all-Apple-TV option would imply setting up your status board with the Apple TV remote, which would be painful by about the third URL. Sure, you could require a Bluetooth keyboard or take input from a companion iOS app, but doesn’t that take us right back to where we started?

Maybe Apple TV could be a killer game machine, but not with that TV remote. And what would the ideal remote be? Maybe something with an accelerometer (like a Wiimote), and a touch screen that could be reconfigured to the game at hand. Oh wait, I just described an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad mini. And if this is such a good idea, write it as a second-screen iOS game now instead of waiting for Apple.

Time and again, as I think of things the Apple TV would excel at, it comes in far behind the iOS devices we can already develop for. Add to this the Roku experience, where there are hundreds of channels, but almost all of them are content-driven. Sure they’re nichey — there are a bunch of channels that appear to just be Sunday sermons from a given church — but their value is in their content, not their functionality. In fact, the strength of Roku may be in its willingness to get you to content quickly and get out of the way (although its straining-to-be-pretty new top interface is a strange mis-step when viewed from this perspective).

When I spin up the Roku, it’s because I’ve got some time to park on the couch or the bed and spin up Crunchyroll to see what horrible thing Nakamura does next in Flowers of Evil, or dig through Netflix for a movie, or maybe just to run some Pandora over the speakers while I’m working on something else.

And that answers the question we came in with: What can you do better on an Apple TV than you can do with the iPhone or iPad you’re already using?

The answer is streaming media. Big screen, big speakers… way better viewing and listening experience than on an iPhone or an iPad. That’s the one thing that makes sense for this class of device.

And that’s why I’d be surprised to see an Apple TV SDK next week at WWDC. If Apple opens up this box, they shouldn’t introduce it to developers; they should debut an SDK at NAB or Streaming Media West, offering it to the content providers who would then hire us developers.

Comments (2)

  1. […] This piece by Chris Adamson seems to agree with my thought over a year ago about the kinds of apps that would make sense on a future Apple TV. […]

  2. […] Apple game console… umm, yeah. Aside from my already-established skepticism on the idea of an Apple TV SDK, let me share with you a post I saw on App.Net that utterly killed […]

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