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The trouble with TV apps: hardware experts can’t build great software

The trouble with TV apps: hardware experts can’t build great software


Doing apps well means more than slapping an 'app' label on the side of the TV box

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ecosystems tv apps
ecosystems tv apps

A high-end TV today isn’t much different from a Motorola RAZR back in 2005: excellent hardware mixed with abysmal software. "Smartphones" weren’t yet smartphones, and certainly today "Smart TVs," which flaunt apps and gesture-based navigation, aren’t even close to "smart." Adding apps doesn’t make a TV stop acting like a TV: a slow, sluggish box that’s pretty but dumb. So where do TV apps go from here?

Some refrigerators even have apps, I hear

TV makers today seem to make software largely so they can stick the word "APPS!" on the side of a box. Every cool device has apps these days, so why not TVs? Some refrigerators even have apps, I hear. The problem is that TV apps are almost always slow, bloated, and feature incomplete versions of their small screen predecessors.

"What has held the TV back is that it’s terribly difficult to evolve the content and hardware / software side of the equation at the same time," says Georg Petschnigg, who founded iOS app studio FiftyThree, worked at Microsoft close to its Xbox team before that, and even at one time worked on a channel guide system for Bell Labs. "TV is a broadcast system, and as such needs to cater to the lowest common denominator. It’s biggest advantage is reach," Petschnigg says. "Xbox and iPhone can break out of that and drive for a high-end user experience."

The principle behind TV apps is a noble one: seamless access to movies, streaming video games, and more. OnLive’s app for Vizio TVs had promise (and prevented users from having to purchase a separate set-top box), as did Netflix and Hulu Plus baked into TVs. Consumers love not having to set up any extra hardware, but the experience so far has been subpar compared to what you’ll find with third party set top boxes.

"It's terribly difficult to evolve the content and hardware / software side of the equation at the same time."

HBO GO’s Samsung Smart TV app is a shining example of what most developers are missing — but can you blame them for skipping out on the Smart TV market, focusing on apps for Android, iPhone, Galaxy Tabs, and iPads instead? The market’s for native smart TV apps may be even smaller than thought — a study from NPD suggests that less than half of households with a "smart" TV have even connected it to the internet.

"We need to be where the consumer wants us," says HBO’s SVP of Digital Products Otto Berkes. "Our content, especially HBO’s original programming and theatricals, play beautifully on large flat screen televisions, and consumers clearly enjoy that immersive, focused experience. TV apps also enable second-screen experiences and is an area we’re actively exploring," he says. HBO GO is already available on platforms like Xbox 360, tablet platforms, and Roku. Great TV apps built right into your set have fallen by the wayside as apps debut on these platforms first.

And for that reason, consistency is winning out over convenience. Apps on platforms like Boxee, Roku, and Xbox 360 feel like part of the TV anyway, and are the wise choice for consumers — at least until TV operating systems standardize the way mobile phone operating systems did post-iPhone. While "TV apps" like Netflix, HBO Go, and Pandora might be nice to have out of the box, most TV apps are simply relics of an age past and of an industry behind the curve.

Explore the ecosystems

This week we're taking a close look at the future of TV and the living room — the great unclaimed space of the technology world. Check back each day for a close look at all the major players, along with a full range of interviews with industry players and reports on everything from the state of remote controls to the future of gaming. Tune in all week for the rest. Here’s a sampling:

Google, Microsoft, Aereo, Boxee CEO Avner Ronen
Wednesday: Amazon, Sony, live sports, TV apps, Condé Nast’s Dawn Ostroff, NBC's Vivian Schiller
Thursday: Apple, the state of remotes, Vizio CTO Matt McRae
Friday: Independents, New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum, Valve