Appsolutely no point? The role of apps on the TV.

Following the launch of our YouTube HTML5 app (which went live last week), we’ve spent a lot of time welcoming the great and the good of the UK tech press to Freesat Towers to talk about the app, Freesat in general and our future plans for the platform. One of the questions we got asked most is what our future app strategy is, and when we will add a wider range of non-video apps to the platform.

It’s a perfectly reasonable question to ask. Apps are now absolutely synonymous with the tech world we live in. Over half of us in the UK have smartphones, and apps are every bit as important to the smartphone experience as the user interface or the build of the device. Globally, we downloaded over 1.75bn apps in just one week at the end of 2012.

In some ways it’s easy to see why TV is seen as a natural next step for an app platform. TV has taken some major inspiration from mobile in recent years, user interfaces being an obvious example. Today, almost every TV manufacturer also offers apps as part of their latest ranges of smart devices. But should they bother?

The debate on the merits of TV apps has been done to death in recent years, with many questioning the merits of the TV as an app platform. The key arguments centre around the TV being a shared, not personal, device, and that it is a lean-back medium that people are less likely to want to interact with than their phones.  Our own viewer research at Freesat shows a sharp divide between “passive” viewers and “active” TV planners.

Freesat’s interest in this debate has been rekindled by some of the subtle changes that the major TV manufacturers and platforms have made in their platforms this year, suggesting apps are becoming less of a priority for them. It’s very noticeable that Samsung has demoted apps within its 2013 line-up of Smart TVs. Apps were front and centre of their 2011 and 2012 TVs; now, they are relegated to their own section of the UI. UPC’s Horizon service also has apps, but they too are very much a secondary part of the experience.

Which makes us think – less is more.  Afterall – how many apps on our smartphones do we use frequently? A quick poll of the Freesat office puts the number at 5-6 – which, coincidentally (or not) is also about the average number of TV channels that people habitually watch and revert to.

This is not to say that non-video apps have no place on the TV. The BBC revealed in 2010 that 12.7m people used red button services every week. But great programming remains key to the TV experience. If our customers start asking, en masse, for a smartphone-like variety of apps on the TV, then we would look again. But for now, most still want their TV to do what TV is supposed to do – deliver great programmes that they can find quickly and easily. Whether there is an app-etite [groan] for more….remains to be seen.

Giles Cottle is Head of Strategy at Freesat

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3 comments on “Appsolutely no point? The role of apps on the TV.

  1. Thanks, good read as ever.

    I agree with the less is more argument, as what is the point in repeatition of apps accross platforms, I.e TV, freesat STB, other connected devices. I see my freetime device as a PVR primarily, but obviously if it becomes a one stop shop for relevant video OD and catchup services, without having to go to a computer or other device, that’s a bonus.

    The new YouTube app is superb, in all it’s HTML-5 glory. The device pairing shows how powerful the connected smartphone / companion app / smart glass tech can be. The freetime platform desperately needs this integration to extend the usefulness of its primary functions, I.e scheduling recordings remotely, searching the upcoming TV for the week, reviewing your showcase editorial picks, and perhaps browsing the recordings on the device, and starting playback remotely.

  2. I’m just bought a new LG TV (I wanted a bigger screen and passive 3D – would have bought a Panasonic to replace my previous Freesat-integrated one, but they are dragging their heels in bringing one out to that spec…) and the amount of apps and things it has got is overwhelming. My broadband is poor so am not likely to make use of connected apps. But the screen is full of icons and different tabs and pages that you have to scroll, it actually makes using the TV much more difficult. I’m very much a “back-to-basics” person, this conversation has been had on a various forums (fora?) over the last few days! A TV, or a TV receiver, is about receiving broadcast programmes, and a PVR is about recording them and playing them back. All the connected apps these days, they are being duplicated and replicated on all our devices now and I feel the basic device is getting lost! There is more than one way we can access Netflix for example. I am all for innovations an tehcnology and functionality and features, don’t get me wrong, but maybe not where it obscures the core functionality of the device it is on and starts overhwelming it. I’ll make my case again here! For a TV receiver, in particular Freesat as that’s the only form of TV reception I have, I’d like TV satellite viewing to be made as easy as possible with a greatest possible choice. That means easy-to-use front ends and EPG and you shouldn’t have to go down several levels of menu items to do things, the ability to customise your own favourites to enable easy access to them without having to wade through dozens of channel listings you’re never going to be interested in (I know that broadcasters don’t like their channels being skipped over, but to be honest if you don’t like/want a channel then it doesn’t matter how many times you are forced to scroll past it, it’s not really going to persuade you to view it and it’s more likely to annoy you, especially when there are dozens of them), wider choice of channels (although I actually think we now have a GREAT selection of channels on Freesat – more sport, movie and specialised music channels wouldn’t go amiss though, and of course more HD) . For a recorder, again – easy to use front ends etc, but the next big innovation should be the abillity to serve live TV and recorded content across more than one TV/room and have “virtual” PVRs in each room. In other words, a multi-tuner headless server box (expandable with more plug-in tuner cards, two disks in RAID 1 that can be user-replaced for larger sized ones…) that can be tucked away somewhere and connects to small, silent media-player-sized client boxes at each TV. This would be a huge coup for Freesat, no other system can do this as yet, and it’s especially useful for Freesat because satellite being what it is, it is more difficult that say Freeview to achieve reception in multiple rooms. This is indeed getting back to true innovation in the core functionality of the product which I would much prefer over yet another implementation of Flickr on my set top box.

  3. I am one of those customers you are talking about “asking for more apps on my tv”.

    I do agree with your sentiment that there are a lot of junk apps out there not delivering much, and therefore not used, but that is not a reason to not implement apps.

    I bought the new G2 Humax HDR 1000s box, on the promise of the apps written on the packaging, such as internet radio, 4OD and demand 5.
    6 months on and only Youtube has been delivered – I must say it is a brilliant implementation of the player and works very well except for the one bug (“loading” popping up every few seconds during playback).

    What is needed is imagination and good apps designed with tv in mind (like the excellent youtube app), here are some ideas;-

    Internet Radio – http://tunein.com/ & radio player (http://www.radioplayer.co.uk/apps/) most of us have our set top boxes hooked up to our AV amps – so being able to select from every uk station and world radio would be great.

    Zeebox/twitter app – catch the buzz about what others are saying on the tv that you are currently watching

    From the epg –
    1) Press i and perform a Wiki@Tv search on selected keywords from the epg info on the programme that you are watching (with a choice to keep the picture in the corner while you do this) or go to that particular programmes web page e.g. watchdog. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006mg74 or eastenders http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006m86d etc.

    2) Hyperlinks to IMDB to get the extended episode and cast information.for the programme that you are looking at in the EPG

    3) from that information, then link to tvguide.co.uk to get a list of other programmes on this week with the same person/actor in (because you may be a fan of Jamie Oliver etc).. e.g http://tvguide.co.uk/search.asp?title=Jamie+Oliver&submit.x=20&submit.y=17

    4) find all films on freesat this week http://nextfilm.co.uk/freesat/

    more Movie players – blinkbox/love film/netflix/clubcard tv etc… I believe some of these are on the way

    Add Connect-TV http://www.connect-tv.tv/ provide loads more internet channels on freeview, and I know their app is capable of working on freesat (as it currently powers the space).

    A browser actually designed for the tv screen – http://kylo.tv/ a great example of browsing the internet in a format suitable for the tv screen.

    I do hope Giles that you will take the time to comment back on these ideas here.

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