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The future of TV is apps

Nick Walters 2App-like user experiences are transforming the TV experience, writes Nick Walters, CEO at kids educational entertainment provider Hopster.

As the saying goes, we shape our tools and thereafter, they shape us. We’re the generation that builds devices and operating systems to better serve the needs of today – and anticipated needs of tomorrow. But in doing so, we shape the far tomorrow in ways almost impossible to foresee.

Think of the iPhone, unveiled by Steve Jobs in 2007. Jobs introduced it as three things: a mobile phone, a personal music player, and an ‘internet communicator’. The genius of the device was its ability to combine three of 2007’s major needs into a single device.

Fast forward 10 years and the smart phone has reshaped the world in ways barely anticipated. Mobile’s combination of standardised operating systems, hardware chops, pervasive location awareness, open app stores, image sensing and recognition technology, is transforming transportation (Uber), banking (Mondo), communication (WhatsApp/Snapchat) and social (Instagram).

Slowly, the same trend is playing out in the interplay between TV hardware and services. It’s become commonplace to assert that the future of TV is apps. But we’ve yet to understand what that change really means. The big screen TV is still the most important screen in many families’ lives, and we must not underestimate what will happen as it becomes unshackled.

For years the TV set was a backwater, with innovation hampered by poor hardware, user experience and a hodge-podge of conflicting operating systems and standards that made innovating at scale near impossible. The big innovations in digital media – Netflix, iTunes, Spotify – happened outside the TV on web and mobile, and then used that traction to shoulder their way onto the TV set.

The new generation of hardware such as Apple TV, Amazon Fire and Chromecast, is defining a new standard. The devices pack fast processers and ample memory. They use open, standardised operating systems that integrate seamlessly with mobile. They support open app stores. They make increasing use of new input methods like voice. They play smoothly with cloud based services.

How will these new capabilities shape us? I don’t know entirely. It’s hard to envisage the endpoint of a paradigm shift, but we can see enough to make some modest predictions.

It’s true that the future of TV is apps. Users will expect their content providers to operate seamlessly across mobile and TV through common ‘app-like’ user interfaces. That much is commonplace.

We’ll see these apps fuse technology and content in ways far more profound than most broadcasters have done so far. Remember – apps are applications. They do things. We’re at the start of seeing content providers embed technology in their services. Netflix’s recommendation algorithm is the best known example. There’s so much more to come. Voice recognition. Gesture recognition. Hyper personalisation. Interactivity. Location-based programming. VR / AR integration. A social layer.

If you don’t believe me, imagine a sports TV app in 10 years’ time. Imagine what replaying that offside decision could look like. Imagine instantly recreating that dramatic one-on-one via a FIFA integration so you could try it yourself at half time. Imagine what betting or user participation could look like. And it doesn’t look much like Sky Sports today.

This leads to a further thought; today’s channels are not tomorrow’s apps. Most winning channels will not make it as winning apps. The technology investments required will outstrip the capabilities of most current broadcasters. The battle for screen space on mobile is already intense – with most users limiting themselves to not more than 20 or 30 apps. On TV it will be worse. Expect users to limit themselves to no more than 10 apps. If you think today’s smart TV user interfaces limit discovery, wait till you try voice search. The future of TV does not look like an EPG of apps.

The apps that win will be either those with a critical mass of their own compelling content like Netflix, those that provide a meta-layer of search and discovery on top of other users’ content (consider Apple’s ‘TV’ app, Facebook, YouTube, and virtual operators like Magine and TV Player) and apps that provide a genuinely unprecedented experience in differentiated niches for certain interest groups; kids, sports or shopping.

The winners in this last category are yet to emerge. At Hopster, we’re investing hard to excel in creating an unparalleled experience for kids – our new Apple TV app combines video, music, books and games, in a single, deeply personalised app for preschoolers. With sustained investment and iteration, we built the number one grossing app for kids in the UK and took home Apple’s App of the Year for TV in the UK. We make these investments because we think that TV apps will be a winner takes all game in each category.

That’s not the end of it. Common operating systems will mean existing pay-TV operators will lose at least some control over their set top boxes. New forms of content and app bundling will emerge, driven by new intermediaries. Advertising will be shaped as TV advertising is dragged into the digital ad ecosystem, something which seems likely to further consolidate the power of Google and Facebook. Legacy cost bases will hamper the ability of many broadcasters to compete.

Change won’t come overnight. TV hardware replacement cycles are five times the length of those for mobile. But slowly, surely, incrementally, the tech we’ve built will shape the industry we run.

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