With a new Apple media streamer reportedly weeks away, we asked app makers what’s worked for competing platforms like Roku and Chromecast.
Apple has a lot of catching up to do if it’s going to launch a new Apple TV in September.
Apple’s current streaming set-top box dates back to 2013, and even that was just a minor update from the previous year’s model. The software has also stayed largely the same—with the exception of an iOS 7-like visual refresh last year—and while the app selection has grown, there’s still no proper app store to rival those of Roku, Amazon’s Fire TV, and Google’s Android TV.
No one feels the pain of this quite so much as app makers, who would love to feature their software and services on a modern Apple media-streaming box. So rather than coming up with my own wish list for the next Apple TV, I reached out to some of these developers to hear what a brand-new Apple TV box could do to stand out.
Freedom From The Cookie Cutter
Apple currently offers about 60 third-party apps for Apple TV, and all of them are on a tight leash. Every app must fit into a strict template, defined by its top navigation bar and text-heavy lists atop a featureless black background. If Apple opens its platform to more apps, as expected, several developers I spoke with hope they won’t be stuck with those rigid templates.
Nuvyyo, for instance, has created a custom Roku app for its Tablo broadcast DVR hardware, letting users find and record shows through a grid-like channel guide. That same system couldn’t exist in Apple TV’s current format, says Steve Brambilla, Nuvyyo’s director of client engineering.
Tablo’s custom Roku app
“The live TV grid that we have right now in our Roku app, we had to develop that from the ground up, and just having that ability to do it was awesome,” Brambilla says. (Roku still offers templates for making quick-and-dirty apps, which Tablo used before overhauling its Roku app earlier this year.)
Apple’s current templates do have one advantage: They create consistency, so users don’t feel lost as they move between apps. But that’s something Apple could solve with strong developer guidelines, says Scott Olechowski, cofounder and chief product officer for media server software Plex. With Android TV, for instance, Plex tries to follow Google’s guidelines as best it can, even though it is free to diverge from them.
“If people actually adhere to those, I think you can get apps that behave fairly similarly, even if they don’t look identical.” Olechowski says.
Solving The “What to Watch” Problem
An influx of new Apple TV apps would also complicate the process of figuring out what-to-watch problem that other platforms have experienced while allowing more developers into their app stores.
One likely solution from Apple will involve universal search, which is already headed to the iPhone and iPad with iOS 9. By letting app makers index their contents to appear in Siri and Spotlight searches, users could just ask for the name of an actor or TV show, and get results from individual apps. Rumors have suggested that Apple TV might include this feature as well, which makes sense given that every other major set-top box now has some kind of universal search built in.
Beyond just the typical searches for cast, crew, and titles, Tablo’s Brambilla hopes Apple will support more advanced searches, letting users ask for the next episode of a show they like, or popular shows from a certain time period or genre.
“We’re kind of seeing that a little bit now with Siri and Apple Music integration, where you can search for ‘top hits of 1986’ and be able to fulfill that request,” Brambilla says. “To extend that to third-party developers would be huge.”
Other media streamers have also been trying to pull content out of individual apps and into the main menu system. Roku, for instance, has a section called “My Feed,” where users can track unreleased movies and get notified when they’re available in an app. Amazon’s Fire TV interface places even less emphasis on apps, and more on video from Amazon Prime and other sources. Android TV offers a “Recommendations” bar on the top of its main menu, which third-party apps can feed into.
Android TV’s Recommendations feature
Brambilla points out that Apple TV already offers recommendations, but right now they’re entirely based on video from iTunes. “I would suspect that if the UI doesn’t change too dramatically, that that might be opened up for some kind of recommendation API, which would ultimately be fairly similar to what Android TV has.”
Making The Second Screen More Useful
AirPlay used to be Apple TV’s killer feature. By letting iPhone and iPad users beam nearly any video or audio to the big screen, AirPlay served as a crutch for Apple TV’s limited app selection, and was often faster than using a regular remote control.
With Chromecast, there are a lot more capabilities there that are just unavailable with AirPlay.
But a couple years ago, Google devised a better system with its $35 Chromecast dongle: Instead of beaming video directly from the phone or tablet, Chromecast receives a set of instructions so it can stream that content directly from the Internet itself. This frees up a phone or tablet do other things, like browse the current app, make a phone call, or leave the house without disrupting the video. Chromecast also allows for volume controls from the phone or tablet, and lets others take control of the current stream with their own devices.
“With Chromecast, there are a lot more capabilities there that are just unavailable with AirPlay,” says Albert Reinhardt, vice president of product for the indie streaming video service Fandor.
Reinhardt would like Apple to do more than just replicate Chromecast’s ease of use. He’s also hoping for deep connections between iOS 9’s universal search functions and AirPlay, and a faster way to log into various streaming services. (Apple TV does let users log into apps by visiting a special activation page on those apps’ websites, but it’s still a pretty clunky procedure that could be improved through something like Handoff.)
Plex’s Olechowski also praises Chromecast’s ability to fling TV guide data to the big screen as you’re browsing, which is useful for choosing what to watch with a group. “Being able to open that communication channel allows you to do a lot more in concert with the TV than you can with AirPlay today,” he says.
Better Hardware, More Features
With rumors of an A8 processor inside the next Apple TV, developers are hoping it can handle more than just a new wave of apps.
For instance, Apple could bring over the picture-in-picture mode that will debut on iPads in iOS 9, letting users play videos in thumbnail mode on top of other apps. While this is a very old concept for TVs, it’s not a feature you currently find in streaming devices.
“With multitasking coming to the iPad, I would love to see that extended to the big screen,” says Ilya Pozin, cofounder and chief growth officer for Pluto.tv, an app that strings various web video sources into live TV channels. “With more screen space comes more options for picture-in-picture or multiple viewports that could be especially useful for sports or even Pluto TV.”
Plex’s Olechowski is also hoping for a touch pad in the next Apple TV remote, a feature which is rumored, if only as a way to quickly scroll through menu items. No one likes to mash a directional button repeatedly, and Plex users can be quite vocal when existing hardware shortcuts aren’t being utilized. “Sometimes, people are trying to do things, they know what they want to do, and there’s just a speed component to it,” he says.
More than any of these feature suggestions, however, developers who aren’t part of the current Apple TV’s exclusive lineup are simply hoping they can get on the platform in the first place.
“I just hope they do it, man,” Olechowski says. “I mean, honestly, that’s the thing that’s been really frustrating for us for a long time.”