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The new Android TV home screen has the right ideas, but it's probably not enough

The new Android TV home screen has the right ideas, but it's probably not enough


Home screens don’t have to just be grids of apps

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I just spent some time with a small, early demo of the new home screen experience for Android O on TV. Even though it’s not fully working yet — some of the apps don’t open, and the Google Assistant isn’t running on it — it has a nicer TV UI than the other television devices I use every day.

Those TV devices: Apple TV and Chromecast. The latter, while convenient, has no on-screen UI at all, which is a problem if you’re trying to pick a show with somebody else. The Apple TV is, well, it’s a big, boring grid of apps, only a few of which actually surface any kind of deep content on the home screen (and only if you happen to put them in the top row).

Android TV is more like Fire TV and the Xbox: each app is able to create a “channel,” which displays important content right on the home screen. You scroll vertically through your favorite app channels, then left to right to get live previews. It will also work with live television apps.

There’s obviously a big old app grid if you want that, and a row of your favorite apps up at the top. You’ll be able to use Google Assistant to search for shows or even ask contextual questions. We got to do a small test of that on another TV device running Android Marshmallow, and it worked pretty well as far as the demo goes. It successfully showed the weather, and ably brought us information about Stranger Things.

The Watch Now queue is pretty smart

There’s also a “Watch Now” queue, which will theoretically have the next episode of recent shows you’ve been watching and movies you’ve quit halfway through. It’s like a “keep watching” list on Netflix. But it’s also like a proper Netflix queue, because you can save any show or episode to it by long-pressing on its icon.

That’s not all that far off from what Apple is trying to do with its TV app, but on Android TV it’s built right into the home screen. That may sound like Android has figured out a way to do what Apple couldn’t — but the whole story is obviously more complicated.

Complication number one: app makers can choose whether or not to participate in the Watch Now section of Android TV, just like they can choose whether or not to participate in Apple’s Siri search and its TV app. Content companies have proven to be remarkably reticent to allow their content to be listed in places other than their app.

The only way to really get those apps into something like the Watch Now queue is probably leverage: sell millions upon millions of devices and prove that the feature is so popular that you’d be crazy to lock your content out of it. And that is really the second complication: Android TV was such a flop for the first few years of its existence that it’s been difficult for it to climb back. There’s simply not going to be a big enough install base for Google to gain that leverage.

So Android O on TVs: looks good, fairly promising, but probably not enough to make you want to switch to it. Turns out it’s easier to make a demo of a better TV interface than it is to actually make it a real thing customers use. It should be available alongside Android O for phones later this year.