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TV apps are a flawed idea

18 Aug 2011

Internet TVs are the video phones of the 21st Century: forever touted as the Next Big Thing yet never quite catching on. The latest push is all about apps. But does anyone really want apps on their TV? What if there was a better way? [pullquote]Anyone in the market for an Internet TV will already have a laptop or tablet[/pullquote]

I think it’s safe to assume anyone in the market for an Internet TV will already have a laptop, tablet or at least a smartphone. Given this, I can’t see any situation in which a TV app would be better than using an existing portable device.

The case for apps

Say it’s the ad break and I want to check Facebook. I bring up the Facebook app on my TV. My flatmate/sibling/partner was using it last so first I have to log out and log back in as me. Then I spend a couple of minutes subjecting everyone else in the room to pictures of other people’s babies before the TV crashes. By the time it’s rebooted, the ads are over and we’ve missed the start of the show.

Later, I’m watching Question Time and following the #bbcqt hashtag with the Twitter app on my TV. The tweets obscure part of the screen. They’re right there in my face so I can’t just look away and ignore them should I want to. And when I want to chime in with my own valuable opinion I compose my message using the… remote control?

(I may be missing something but it seems user input is a major issue with any kind of TV interactivity. Navigating hierarchical menus with only up, down, left, right buttons is a major pain. And inputting text without a full QWERTY keyboard is similarly laborious and frustrating. Sure, you could have a wireless keyboard and trackpad. But that’s just more junk cluttering up your coffee table.)

So next I give up on the TV and go and check my emails. My mum’s sent me a link to a sleepy kitten video on YouTube. Aha! Video! That’s what TVs are made for. So I fire up the YouTube app on the TV. I (tediously) type “sleepy kitten” into the search. 54,228,645 results. Great. Do I install and configure the email app in order to get the right link?

OK, maybe those are all bad examples. What about iPlayer/Hulu? Surely those are just made for TV? But they too suffer from the remote control problem. I already know how to use the sites on my laptop. I don’t want to have to learn a new (and inferior) user interface just to watch stuff on a bigger screen. And what about that other video streaming site which doesn’t have an app?

What I really want is a Send to big screen button on my laptop, tablet and phone. YouTube video? Send to big screen! LoveFilm download? Send to big screen! Meanwhile I can still use my portable device to check Facebook or Twitter or anything else.

Apple AirPlay

As it turns out, this technology already exists and it’s coming to an iPad or iPhone near you this autumn. Apple calls it AirPlay and it lets users of iOS devices send content to an Apple TV connected to the same wifi network.

Here’s a demonstration showing video and audio streaming. Notice how you can multitask and send music from one app and images from another.

But watching video on the big screen is only the start. Apps can choose to use the Apple TV as a second screen and this has interesting implications for gaming.

What you end up with is a touch screen game controller connected wirelessly to a TV. Now, where have I seen that before?

Instead of apps on your TV, AirPlay gives you TV on your apps.

To me, that makes a lot more sense.