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Suppose you wanted to build an app for TV, where would you start? Admittedly, there is an enormous number of variables to consider for an app developer on where they might start the journey, even before that journey starts. These include areas like skill sets, funding, previous development, and relationships. This article is the first in a series that aims to shed some light on the current state of TV app development, as well as the exciting ecosystem that is forming around the connected TV. If you've identified an opportunity where developing a TV app makes sense, read on!
An easier question might be: If you wanted to use an app on TV, how would you go about that? First you turn on the TV. Maybe you turn on a set top box too. Now you're launched into live programming or a menu system. You'll navigate using your remote to the app you wanted, then launch it. This process is far and away from the experience that you are probably more familiar with on your smartphone: unlock, swipe, tap.
The user implications here are far reaching for an app developer.
Let's explore some of the key considerations, starting with just that first action by the user: Turning on the TV.
Of course, now we have to ask: Are you developing for a Smart TV? If so, which one?
Developing an app for the the Smart TV layers is becoming a popular choice as your content will be essentially available to consumers the moment they turn on their screens. The reality today is that Smart TV app stores don't carry all the content that most consumers want and therefore the path towards other sources becomes the user's destination. In addition, many Smart TVs can be underpowered or lack the resources required to execute the type of user experience that an app developer would like to deliver. That may change over time as Smart TV manufacturers look to improve their app stores and smart capabilities. Consumers will become less reliant on accompanying boxes and pay-TV service providers for content as Smart TVs surface it faster with less hardware.
Maybe you've decided that you don't want to develop for the Smart TV itself, but rather an on-premise device or other TV accessory that provides connectivity. This is usually the next step for consumers: Turning on the set top box.
There is a huge variety of set top boxes, but they generally fit under one of these categories:
With all these different devices and hardware differences, you may be tempted to compare it to the large range of mobile devices in the market today. That wouldn't be an unfair comparison, as there are many parallels for developing for the wide range of mobile devices and their specific users against the myriad of boxes and attachments available for the TV. Of course, many of these manufacturers are more predominant in one region rather than another, and these factors need to be considered from the start.
There is also a new breed of devices that relate to the TV experience, which we'll call Smart Accessories. These include wearables that alter perception or interaction with the TV.
You may be thinking that we've forgotten the bubbling market for Mini PC/TV sticks (dominated by Android variants), but they've been left out due to the rapid development cycle and the dynamics of numerous small manufacturers. A quick search on Alibaba or similar sites will yield an impressive array of options for that MK### stick to fulfill your Android TV needs. Generally, developing for these devices means developing for an Android TV device that only uses D-Pad/Mouse/Keyboard control and has UI more alike to tablets than Google TV.
Once you've decided to develop for a certain device, you can then start considering the software and services side. This goes on to the next step of the user journey to your app: What environment is your app running on and what user experience does it provide?
Unfortunately, the fragmentation issue only gets worse from here on out. Because software tends to be easier to produce than hardware, and software is often a key point of differentiation, there are significant numbers of operating systems and middleware that your app could be built for. While some are are tied to specific manufacturers (for example, Roku's software only runs on Roku's devices).
It's a big list, and certainly the comparisons with mobile are a bit more dramatic from here. Were mobile operating systems ever this fragmented? Looking at the sheer number of software environments, it is clear that there are many variants to what users will experience the moment something hit their screens. On the fortuitous side, many of these systems are built on common technologies and frameworks such as Linux, HTML/Web, and Android. On the problematic side, it isn't obvious to developers where the inefficiencies and variations exactly are.
Getting to the last steps before the user gets to using your app is navigating and launching your app. How are they going to do that? Input devices are almost as varying as the devices they come with. Just think about the number of remote controls that the average household might have. There could be one for the TV, multiple controls for multiple set top boxes, and perhaps a few more for audio control. Each remote has a different layout, different inputs, different shapes, and could control one or more devices each with different degrees of overlap. In practice, developers can typically only rely on directional pad and an "OK" button being present on any given TV system. If a developer wants to innovate around other inputs, such as motion sensors, it's "Good Luck!" to have that same work carry over to other seemingly similar devices.
At this point, suppose you want to cover the market and develop for all devices and middleware platforms. That's at least 72 middleware/OS, 122 devices, and 3 screen resolutions, which equates to managing over 26,352 experiences. A little overwhelming, right? Luckily, the picture isn't quite this grim and in practice, no developer has gone to these lengths (we hope!). The next article in this series will go into how some of this fragmentation is being dealt with and some best practices that we've discovered along the way.
TV apps are still in the early days and is ripe for UX and UI innovation, and here at AppCarousel we can't wait to see what happens.