Android TV is based on Android, meaning you can use common workarounds such as sideloading apps and using a keyboard and mouse to turn your streaming device into a real productivity device. You can even root your device and dual boot it with a stock mobile version of Android.
However, this does require workarounds that may be too intimidating for casual users. They may want to use nothing but the recommended tools and input devices. For these casual users, they are much more restricted. They may have a simple remote that is fairly limited: up, down, left, right, back, home. They don’t have the ability to easily enter letters or move a cursor on the screen. Users also don’t have access to productivity apps like Microsoft Word or Evernote. They have the small number of TV apps that are in the Google Play Store.
Why is this? How come, when I open up the Play Store I only see a few apps related to media and games? This editorial is going to look at the app landscape on TVs, trying to understand why some choices were made, and what the future of TV apps will look like.
Common TV Apps
When I’m publishing an app in the Play Store Developer Console, I need to select a category. This makes it easier for the store to filter my app and present it to the right users. There’s a lot of categories, which speaks to the variety of ways that we use software in our lives today. An application can help us with dating, our education, our parenting, and many other things. Google Play has become a rich ecosystem with millions of apps. You can pick a category on your phone or the web and browse countless listings to find the tool that works best for you.
Now let’s try to do the same thing on our TV. After scrolling to the end of the “Home” section, it shows just a handful of categories. Our elegant list has been cropped to just four: News, Music, Media, and Tools.
Apple TV Apps
There are several apps that are available on Apple TV but not Android TV which don’t fit into the common idea of “TV app”.
Tinder for Apple TV turns your personal dating life into a group affair, with you being able to swipe on people nearby. Messages still have to be sent through the mobile app. It’s an interesting idea, though not one I’m particularly inclined to use with my friends or family.
Amazon is also available for browsing and purchasing items from the online store. Prime members can order things straight from the TV, with an optional 4-pin before purchases are complete.
Philosophy of TV Apps
For app developers, what is the point of bringing your app to the TV? With this different form factor, the user experience and expectations change. Users may be less inclined to send messages than just browse.
This is the idea behind Google’s Leanback philosophy in Android TV: users wanting to sit down on a chair or couch, ten feet away from the screen, and navigate to their content with only a few clicks.
TVs are placed in relatively public spaces. Unlike your phone, which is in your hand and only visible to you, TVs are visible and accessible by anyone in your house or in your family. App developers should be focusing on bringing experiences that are high in visuals and designed for families.
With this multiuser device, there are definitely certain questions to consider.
Will your app have any sort of personal information that shouldn’t be shared? Do I want my family to see messages I send on Tinder? Do I want them to read my emails? While Android TVs may be used by a single person, they can also be used by families, so privacy should be more stringent. That’s not to say there can’t be a balance. Great apps can be built that tread the line of personal privacy.
Will your app be doing anything that requires certain authorization? Do I want anyone in the house to be able to buy an item? Who pays for it? Do I want to enter my credit card number on the TV? Android Pay does not work on Android TV, which means other payment systems would have to be used. But is that really a good idea? There’s many ideas for how to pay on your TV, but there’s no standard for Android.
In the future, Android TV may improve the multiuser implementation, with each person in the house having their own profile along with a guest mode. This is something that is available in the stock Android operating system, but not something on TVs.
There’s plenty of opportunities for Google and third-party app developers to continue to develop products that work great for families and take advantage of the big screen.
Storytime for iBooks is a neat app on Apple TV which accesses your children stories and reads them aloud while showing the pages. It’s a way to consume your content in a new way. It shouldn’t be too difficult for Google to build an equivalent app using Google Play Books as the backend, using Google’s voice synthesizer with elegant illustrations.
Another great kid-related app would be YouTube Kids. It is a version of YouTube that only contains suitable content for kids. It should certainly be brought to Android TV so that kids are able to browse content on their TV instead of having to use someone else’s phone or tablet.
As I mentioned above, the TV is an opportunity for family, visual-heavy applications. This applies to Google and third-party devs. I think there are many Google Android apps which could be translated well to your TV and I hope that Google does a better job of providing more examples of great TV apps to serve as inspiration for third-party developers. There are dozens of possible app categories on Google Play, and that means there are dozens of possible app categories that have a place on your TV as well.