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Developing for TV: Crossing the chasm between screens

[The bright cross-screen future is creeping ever closer, with handset manufacturers and consumer electronics giants competing over the next connected screen; the TV. But what about developers - how easy is it to create apps that work across screens? Guest author Ben Hookway discusses the nuances of cross-screen development and the challenges and opportunities ahead for the smart TV market]

Imagine for a moment a world of apps where there are more than 10 platforms to choose from – and where most of these platforms are closed to developers. A world where only a few applications have been developed. A world where no one is using these apps anyway.

Of course this is describing the current state of the connect TV market. The description could equally apply to the mobile world pre-iPhone, when the focus of app development was on a frustratingly diverse set of platforms.

I spent a few years building businesses which operated in the mobile space pre- and post- iPhone, and lately I’ve been building a business attempting to disrupt web and connected TV. I am constantly struck by the similarity of both environments and believe that the TV industry should spend some quality time looking at the evolution of apps on the mobile from the feature phone to smart phone to avoid re-learning some painful lessons.

TV is a world apart from mobile apps

The word “app” can mean something subtly different on TV. In many cases a TV app is an access point for a set of content – for example, the YouTube, Netflix or LoveFilm apps. In other cases an app refers to functionality just as the Facebook or the eBay app.

In my more cynical moments I sometimes think we’ve ended up with apps on TV because nobody could think of anything better to do. “It worked for phones, so lets try it on TV! The right apps will be useful on TV, but at the same time it is important to recognise what the TV experience is:

- TV is often a shared experience. Mobile phones are personal.

- TV is lean back. Various attempts to get consumers to interact with TV have fallen away

- Consumers hate complex remote controls

Many developers crossing over from web development to TV development aren’t recognising these nuances. This may end in apps just not getting used. Do you really want to be allowing your personal information on a shared screen? Will the other people sharing the TV screen really want it to be used for you scrolling through your Facebook messages?

 

Three Ways to Develop Apps for TV

There are roughly three different categories for TV app development;

1. TV-only apps

Apps for the TV screen or set-top box are usually your favourite web services extended to the TV screen. Examples are Spotify, Flickr and of course Twitter and Facebook. The apps need to be modified in order to work with a TV remote as well and with limited text input – which is easier said than done. Some will be more suitable for crossing over to TV than others. CNet has a comprehensive listing of mainstream music, video and communication apps that have been launched by TV manufacturers.

2. Mobile-only apps

These are mobile or tablet apps that complement the TV but don’t interact with it. Examples here are Zeebox (which recently secured an interesting investment from Sky), Flip.tv, GetGlu, and Miso. These apps focus on providing a concurrent experience to watching the TV, allowing you to interact on your personal device while watching the TV. In this category you can add apps that provide listings content and so on. Consumer surveys show tablets are a natural companion to TV – according to Forrester, 85% of US tablet owners use their tablets while watching TV, and according to Nielsen, 30% of total tablet time is spent while watching TV.

3. Closed loop apps

These are apps that close the loop between mobile and TV experience. Some examples here use DLNA and AirPlay to allow the selection and control of streamed content to the TV screen. The simplest example here would be Apple’s AirPlay allowing you to play movies stored on your MacBook on your TV screen via the Apple TV. Closed loop apps allow you to stream content from one device to the TV screen, for instance. Harder to find are apps which interact with the broadcast TV functions as opposed to using the TV as a monitor, such as allowing you to set recordings on your STB from your smartphone. However, discovering content or channels on one device and using that same device to bring up the content on TV is a more difficult proposition because of the integration required with the TV or STB. This is where innovation starts to break down.

 

The TV fragmentation nightmare

Developing for TV or STB platforms is challenging, whether you are developing TV/STB apps, attempting to ‘close the loop’ or develop a standalone app. Why is that?

- There are a 10+ target platforms. Everyone is pushing some kind of application environment for their TV or set-top box. Examples are, Samsung, Panasonic, Sharp, LG, Sony, Yahoo, Google TV, Boxee, InView, WyPlay, YouView (eventually) and HBBTV – not to mention Android spin-offs. Some of these are closed systems and some have developers programs. For a comprehensive list it is worth looking at this Wikipedia page.

No developer can target all of these platforms, so how do you pick the right one for success?

- How many connected TV screens are there going to be? According to the CEA (www.cea.org), about 260m TV’s were sold in 2011, and around 27% of these were connected (FutureSource). The percentage of TVs that come with Internet connectivity as standard will increase rapidly. Assuming the all connected TVs that are sold are actually plugged into the Internet, the addressable market is still way lower than for mobile phones. In reality, the picture is much more complex.

Many ‘Connected TVs’ are TVs which happen to be ready for connection. Just because it’s Internet ready, it doesn’t mean that the TV will be actually plugged into the Internet and used.

- Not enough of these devices have been bought yet for consumers to realise how poor some of the experiences are. Good products evolve from feedback and there are simply not enough devices in the market for manufacturers to learn from consumer feedback yet. Moreover, there is no compelling reason for consumers to give feedback when they can just go the TV content they want with their existing systems such as traditional set top box services, or use catch-up TV services on PCs and tablets.

 

Will TV have its ‘iPhone Moment?

Having worked through the iPhone disruption in the mobile space I can safely say that this has not yet occurred in the TV market. However, when it comes it will decisively change the dynamics of development. This is important for start-ups working in the TV space and the investors, VC or Angels who back them.

Consider the dynamics of app development pre-iPhone. Often you would have to work with an operator or with a handset manufacturer and would have to pay close attention to the changes in the target platform. Dealing with handset manufacturers and operators is notoriously tricky and time-consuming – and while can make you a superstar if you get it right, more often it wastes time and precious resources.

Post-iPhone, the way of reaching users and making money with apps has radically changed. No need for deep relationships with operators or handset manufacturers – you can just target the obvious winners in the platform space and push your app to the store. This environment does not exist yet in TV.

There are candidates for an ‘iPhone moment’ in TV. Obviously Apple are rumoured to be launching a proper TV. The current Apple TV box is a great device but is not yet an open app platform.

Google TV is a slow burn project but is making steady progress and could be a candidate.

Xbox is also a dark horse, especially with the recent reports (http://t.co/DrM7mu1t) which show that more time is now spent watching content through and Xbox than gaming on it.

And don’t forget the TV incumbents who have been working on this for a while. TiVo, Sky+, YouView in the UK, HBB TV in Europe are all active in TV platform development and Roku has been providing Over The Top (OTT) boxes for a couple of years now.

 

Where should you place your bets?

TV is a confusing place to be working at the moment, in an industry that could be going through an inflexion point in the next couple of years. Its very hard to place the right bet when it comes to TV app development platforms. That said, if you want a list of places to focus on I would list:

TV Manufacturers: Samsung and Sony because of their volume

STB Companies: Boxee, Roku for as thought leaders so far

Platforms: Google TV is the most open platform, and are doing a great deal to encourage development, including signing up major tier-1 services like Hulu. They have low volumes at the moment though so keep an eye on product announcements (http://www.google.com/tv/)

And of course, watch Apple. The next significant step may be the opening up of the current Apple TV product to app development (it is currently closed). The announcement many are waiting for though is of an actual TV set.

TV will have its iPhone Moment, but it might not be Apple that creates it.

- Ben (@benhookway)

[Ben Hookway has 15 years experience in the US, Europe and Asia in technology companies. He has been CEO of Next Device, a mobile phone UI company, and Vidiactive, a web video systems provider. He is currently working with a variety of tech companies and can be contacted at ben@etherow.com]

  • Anonymous

    What about Microsoft Windows Media Centre!!! I have been using this for years as my HTPC and find it absolutely amazing. It leaves the rest for dead in terms of ease of use, functionality, and openness (e.g. the Media Browser plugin). I'd definitely keep my eyes on this platform (perhaps also along with Google and Apple; mobile OSes dejavu), and I just wish that Microsoft would do a little more to advertise some of the good things they actually have hidden in their OS; it would be a shame to see others pip them to the post when they've had the technology with a solid (albeit probably small) following of users for years already.

    • Ben Hookway

      HI. I actually think XBox is more of a play for Microsoft and they could grab a leading role by stealth. The large amount of entertainment available and the motion controlled navigation capability could make for an interesting mix.

  • http://bloggeek.me Tsahi Levent-Levi

    Ben,

    I also don't think that Apple will be the one bringing the Apple moment to TV.
    They have their success with mobile platforms: the iPod, iPhone and iPad.
    But as you already stated – TV is different – it is a shared experience and not a personal one. I don't think they will be able to make the transition and disrupt the market while maintaining their leadership in it.

    As a side note, why should disruption come from TV here?
    An easier way will be for mobile devices to be able to hook up to TVs and just share their content and control it via wireless connections. It makes a lot more sense to me – these devices are already getting to HD resolutions, shouldn't be hard to just share the display or provide dual display capabilities in the same way you have on laptops today from a technical point of view.

    • Ben Hookway

      Hi Tsahi, Thanks for the comment. I think the notion of sharing control and content between personal devices and the TV is a strong one. I worry about standards though. Right now I don't think DLNA is going to be the answer for consumers – it is too confusing right now. AirPlay is good but relies on a closed eco-system although they have opened up audio AirPlay to other manufacturers. If Apple open up AirPlay for video to other manufacturers you could see a radical shift in development focus. Best, Ben

  • http://www.escapevelocitybymoore.com Rick S

    Nice article, I'm all about Roku. I think there is a bright future there. Oh, and thanks for invoking Geoffrey Moore's http://www.geoffreyamoore.com famous book in the title. That got me here to read this in the first place. Great job, thanks!

    • Ben Hookway

      Thanks Rick. Old book, but timeless principles!

      Ben

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