By Ross Fretten, User Experience Architect at OgilvyOne

The future of television, at least according to Apple’s Tim Cook, is apps. I want to interrogate this by examining what the television set as a device is, where it’s going and why I think the future of television is democracy, home & lifestyle, and web browsing.

Where are we now?

For around half of the US population, the television is as it’s always been; a large thing, which streams numerous channels through various services to the living room. These services are often overpriced and one-dimensional, they lack context and/or personalisation — i.e. the very things “the internet” (if I can use such a broad term) is thriving on, but for the other half (which grew from 25% to 50% from 2013 to 2015) the television is becoming something a lot more.

Through smart TVs and plug-in devices from Amazon, Google, Roku and Samsung amongst others, televisions have become “smart” and this context and personalisation has entered the living room. There’s already far too much content written about smart TVs so let’s skip to what I think is the interesting stuff- where the television is going and why the Apple TV might be our best look at that destination yet.

What’s so Special about the Apple TV?

In short, both not very much and a huge amount. The 4th generation Apple TV, released late 2015, is not particularly different to the 3rd generation Apple TV released in 2013 or the Google Chromecast or the Amazon Fire stick in fact. It’s a plug-in-to-your-tv device running Apple’s tvOS that gives your TV a dashboard of apps resembling the iPhone home screen. Sure, Siri allows you to interact with your television through your voice which is both incredibly cool and irritatingly imperfect, but what really does make the new Apple TV special are the invisible things; the tvOS App store, the iOS foundation and the integration with Apple’s ecosystem and it’s these things that make me think the new Apple TV might actually be the future of television after all.

The Future of Television is Democracy

I believe when Tim Cook bullishly made the claim that “the future of television is apps” back in 2015, what would have been more apt is “the future of television is democracy”.

Anybody is welcome and may the best man win… does that sound like any television you’ve used?

The app store (putting the contentious issues of censorship, ratings manipulation and what-not aside) is inherently democractic — anybody is welcome and may the best man, or app, win. We’ve been familiar with this since the app store was introduced in 2008 and then extended to the iPad in 2010 and the Mac the following year, but does that sound like any television you’ve used?

I realised this when I sat down with Sailor, my dog, to have breakfast before work and I watched a few videos on the Mashable app, or channel, before watching a TED Talk on the TED app. These were apps that I had discovered through their popularity on the tvOS App Store and chosen to install on my Apple TV and this was content that was formatted as viewers had dictated through viewing behaviour. None of this is true for traditional television or typical apps one would find on a smart TV or competing devices.

Google’s chromecast doesn’t have an app store dedicated to the hardware, Amazon’s FireTV relies on often unoptimised and out-dated apps and critically both devices and their peers lack the critical mass of users or the pleasurable usability of Apple’s tvOS software and tvOS App store. Apple are always keen to emphasise that their customers use their products more and I believe the same will be true for the tvOS App Store and with this active user base acting as agents of quality control and peer review, we now have a democracy.

The Future of Television is Home & Lifestyle

Already we have thousands of dedicated Apple TV apps less than six months on from the release of the tvOS app store and significantly a large number of these are not your typical on-demand apps such as BBC iPlayer and Netflix (though both are available, of course). Apps such as Airbnb, Houzz and Zova Yoga bring a new flavour to the living room, which brings me to what I believe truly could be our best glimpse yet at the future of television and our living rooms.

When I look at these apps I think, “these are things I want to do with my friends and family” and now, I can. I’m not going to sit around an iPad on Airbnb with my friends looking for a place to stay — we’re all going to go off and research individually and remotely, but with Airbnb on my Apple TV we can now sit together in my living room, socially browsing with pizza in hand. Couples could sit together and gather home inspiration ideas and families could find holidays gathered around the telvision on a Sunday evening. The same principal applies to anything people love to do together — shopping, cooking, music, photos, fitness — you name it.

The television, yes that thing that has largely been classified as dying and antiquated has been given relevance right in the centre of every day life

It’s easy to envisage the television as a HUB for the family in the centre of the home. The television is, after all, the largest screen so it wouldn’t be a problem to show everybody's calendars, traffic information and relevant alerts for the members of the family that are awake and in proximity. This would all be pulled in invisibly via iCloud and the individual family members Apple devices. It’s easy to imagine a tvOS Fever-style app displaying events that suit their preferences and fit with their schedule and with a quick Siri command this could be added to peoples calendars. And of course the heating would delay warming the house to avoid wasting energy.

The television, yes that thing that has largely been classified as dying and antiquated over the last 10 years has been given relevance right in the centre of every day life and most magical of all, it can bring family and friends together in a way that only the television could.

The Future of the Television is the Browser

The major trends of online content over the last 10 years have been, in no particular order:

  • socially rich content
  • video favoured over images
  • images favoured over copy
  • continuous user journeys across devices

The television is inherently social and the biggest and therefore best screen for both video and images. When I say continuous user journeys I mean a linear series of interactions across an experience that can span multiple devices with an uninterrupted data flow. A simple example of this would be a user browsing products on the Amazon app on their phone, saving them to their basket and then resuming their journey on a desktop later that evening. The product is still in their basket irrespective of device and we can say that one user journey (finding and purchasing a product) has spanned multiple devices; a phone and desktop.

We should consider the Apple TV as a new category of device — the sofa screen

The television absolutely can be another touchpoint in this journey allowing users to socially browse accommodation on Airbnb, enjoy catwalk videos on a 50" TV with a great soundtrack via the Burberry app or watch movie trailers as a couple before completing the more functional aspects of the journey such as booking those cinema tickets or buying those clothes on a more functional device, such as a laptop.

This lightweight use-case for the Apple TV isn’t a weakness, it is in fact why I think we should consider the Apple TV as a new category of device — the sofa screen; it’s a device that in keeping with the spirit of the television, specialises and excels more so than any other device at delivering sit-back content to users. Sit-back being when users are inclined to sit back and consume content without inputting much effort to drive the experience forward. I think this is what Apple sees as the future of browsing the web and I think this is why Apple advertise the new Apple TV as “the future of television”… of television as a device, not of cable services or channels. Eventually the television through apps and Siri will be able to offer more lean-forward type functionality such as booking those cinema tickets but crucially, in a sit-back manner such as light-weight voice commands, and it’s this which is revolutionary.

There’s a whole other article for another day in the argument that “The Future of Television is Commerce”. I think it’s worth exploring in greater detail how Apple TV has moved commerce and the act of shopping online from a lean-forward to a sit-back function, which I can’t exaggerate the significance of and how commerce will work on the sofa-screen. In fact, after writing this article Burberry annouced this initiative to sell directly from the catwalk, and Amazon debuted it’s first live and interactive show which lets you shop whilst you watch; two examples that validate my hypothesis here and tease what the television will become in the future.

The Future of Television is… Apple TV

“Great technology is invisible” according to Steve Jobs. The original iPhone eschewed any physical devices (most notably the stylus) in favour of touch- the invisible and most human interaction. Extending this to the iPad and now the iPad Pro, Apple showed us the future, the post-PC era as Apple hailed it had no cursor on the screen.

More importantly Apple showed us with the iPad that browsing the internet could be a pleasurable and delightful experience, laying on a sofa without technology getting in the way or forcibly manipulating our bodies into unnatural positions. Siri has shown us that searching, browsing, making enquiries and even completing light-weight tasks can be effortless and human in the same way the iPhone wowed us with touch. The Apple TV is already beginning to show us how browsing can be social, it can be comfortable and pleasurable and it can be void of chrome (the graphical elements of a browser, such as the back and refresh buttons, or the address bar).

When others are gambling on virtual and/or augmented reality, I think Apple are gambling on invisibility.

I believe Apple see a future where browsing the web can be truly social, effortless and human — lacking any of the ugliness of graphical user interfaces (conceptually, not in terms of design) and from the comfort of our sofas using lightweight, conversational voice commands.

Futher more, Apple have actively chosen to disable web views on the Apple TV, which if you don’t know what that means here is a great article, but in short it means apps cannot show a web page on Apple TV. It forces brands to tailor their content specifically for the Apple TV via apps with bespoke user interfaces. When others are gambling on virtual and/or augmented reality, I think Apple are gambling on invisibility.

When Will this Happen?

We’ve been able to do a lot of this on other devices for a long time, people have been running their own ad-hoc servers and hooking up small PCs to their televisions but it’s never been easy. And it’s never been so fun, so delightful or so natural and with only a sleek, silent black puck next to the television. If this is the future, and I believe it is, critical mass for the sofa-screen will come quickly — whether or not it’s the Apple TV.

None of this is protected Apple IP and there’s no game-changing invention in the centre but the same was true of the iPad- classic Apple innovation, rather than invention, of an existing product category that truly sucked and it was that holistic, customer-centric Apple approach, that Apple vision of the future that made the iPad the biggest selling product of the last ten years and redefined media as we know it and I believe the Apple TV could be about to do it all over again.

You can read more from Ross at Medium here.