Insights

The State of tvOS Development

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Apple CEO Tim Cook championed the future of Apple products at February's Town Hall meeting for Apple employees. Brightest of all, the Apple TV. By serving up content through apps instead of channels, the fourth-generation Apple TV promised to revolutionize the television experience when it launched in 2015.

If Apple's first-quarter earnings report is any indication, Apple TV is well on its way to living room domination. It was the best quarter yet for this platform, with more Apple TV sales than ever before and over 3,600 apps available on its app store. But at the Town Hall meeting, Cook left the finer details of Apple TV's future largely unknown. Part of the reason for this ambiguity is that tvOS engineers are integral for Apple TV's growth. Apps aren't the future of television without people building them.

Whether it's through the quality of their work or the knowledge they share with others, those building apps for a new platform can make a lasting impression on its performance. Black Pixel Engineer Jared Sinclair has worked on numerous tvOS projects and gathered valuable insights throughout the process. Here he weighs in on the state of tvOS development and the future of Apple TV.

When it was announced that tvOS would be open to third-party developers, what was your initial reaction?

Finally. The Apple TV has been around in one form or another for years, but it had never been a device that developers could experiment with. It's great to see Apple finally opening up the Apple TV to anyone with a great idea for an app, and at the same time as they're unveiling a fantastic new operating system.

What do you find most compelling about this platform?

I think they nailed user interactions. The biggest obstacle that has prevented the television from participating in tech revolutions of the past several decades has been the lack of a compelling input mechanism. Standard TV remotes are too indirect. Video game controllers aren't general purpose enough.

By contrast, the Siri Remote's trackpad, in combination with the focus engine, make it feel like you're in physical contact with your TV, even while seated across the room. The zooming parallax animations and big drop shadows aren't just eye candy. They make the interactions visceral.

I'm happy that Apple built the focus engine into almost all of UIKit. It's possible for third-party developers to design apps that are just as tangible and fun as the built-in apps. The physicality of tvOS is what sets it apart from everything that has come before.

How has tvOS evolved over the last four months?

Apple has been working on some incremental improvements to things like the keyboard or using your voice to search for third-party content. But on the whole there's still a lot of untapped potential in the APIs that Apple launched with on day one. Many of the components that developers know and love from iOS have been made compatible with tvOS. There's a remarkable amount of tools to choose from for a brand new operating system.

Have there been any tvOS updates that you think will have a strong impact on Apple TV applications this year?

Apple appears to be listening to people's complaints about text input, which I think is the most notable shortcoming of the platform (besides the unfortunate symmetry of the remote button layout). I like that they'll soon allow third-party apps to use voice search to dictate search queries inside their apps. Entering text with the on-screen keyboard is laborious. I think users will appreciate being able to speak what they want to find, especially young children.

What has been the biggest challenge of building applications for Apple TV?

The biggest challenge of working with tvOS has been replicating some of the visual effects that Apple uses in conjunction with the focus engine. For example, all the cool tilt effects that you see on the tvOS home screen or in movie posters isn't something that you can easily recreate for all kinds of content. They have a straightforward way to do it with static images, but if a design needs layered hierarchies with text or live video thumbnails, a third-party developer will have to recreate all those effects from scratch. Fortunately the tools to do so are already available in the current APIs. I believe the extra effort is worth it. Every ounce of additional responsiveness and physicality will make your app stand out among the competition.

Do you have advice for businesses considering an app for Apple TV?

Design for gatherings. Unlike an iPhone, the Apple TV is a communal device. Whether it's families hunting for a vacation spot, office workers brainstorming new ideas, or roommates bickering over what to eat for dinner, people will gather around the new Apple TV to use it together. If you're making an educational app, don't just port a single-user iPad app to the bigger screen and call it a day. Instead, imagine how a parent and child might use it together in a shared experience.

Where do you see Apple TV headed?

The television is one of the most important devices in our lives, but it's been left out of the tech revolutions of the last several decades. Consider the television in relation to the Internet or apps. Previous attempts to bring the Internet to the TV have been duds. And besides TiVO, there hasn't been any breakout software either. Only video games have managed to turn the television into something interactive, but video games are expensive and have narrow appeal. I'm excited to see how tvOS can turn the television into a shared interactive experience for everyone.

Apple TV's greatest appeal lies in app experiences. If you have an idea for an app and need help bringing it to life, get in touch with our team. For those building apps on your own, stay tuned as we continue to explore the art of Apple TV app creation.