Apple tvOS Tech Talks
by Michael May
As part of Apple’s plan to get more apps onto the Apple TV platform they instigated one of their irregular Tech Talks World Tours. It came to London on January 11th 2016 and I got a golden ticket to attend the one day event.
The agenda for the day was
Apple TV Tech Talks Kickoff
Designing for Apple TV
Focus Driven Interfaces with UIKit
Siri Remote & Game Controllers
On-Demand Resources & Data Storage
Leveraging TVML for Media Apps
Best Practices for Designing tvOS Apps
Tuning Your tvOS App
Making the Most Out of the Top Shelf
App Store Distribution
All sample code was in Swift, as you might expect, but they made a point of saying that you can develop tvOS apps in Objective-C, C++, and C too. I think these are especially important for the gaming community where frameworks such as Unity are so important (despite Metal and SpriteKit).
I won’t go through each session, as I don’t think that really serves any useful purpose (the videos will be released, so I am told). Instead I’ll expand on some of my notes from the day, as they were the points I thought were interesting.
The day started with a brief intro session that included a pre-amble about how TV is so entrenched in our lives and yet so behind the times. This led into a slide that simply said…
“The Future of TV is Apps”
That’s probably the most bullish statement of intent that I’ve heard from Apple, so far, about their shiny new little black box. I think that if we can change user behaviour in the coming months and years then I might agree (see my piece at the end).
Then they pointed out that, as this is the very first iteration of this product, there are no permutations to worry about – the baseline for your iOS app might be an iPhone 4S running iOS 8 but for tvOS it’s just the latest and greatest – one box, one OS.
This is a device for which you can assume
- It is always connected (most of the time)
- It has a high speed connection (most of the time)
- It has a fast dual-core processor
- It has a decent amount of memory
- It has a decent amount of storage (and mechanisms for maintaining that)
They then went on to explain that the principles for a television app are somewhat different from a phone app. Apple specifically called out three principles that you should consider when designing your app.
Your users must feel connected to the content of your app. As your app is likely some distance from the user, with no direct contact between finger and content, this is a different experience from touching the glass of an iPhone UI.
Your app should be legible and the user should never get lost in the user interface. If the user leaves the room for a moment then comes back, can they pick up where they left off?
Just like watching a movie or TV series, your app should be wholly immersive whilst on-screen.
If you had said these things to me casually, I would have probably said, “well, yeah, obviously” but when you have it spelled out to you, it gives you pause for thought;
“If I did port my app, how would I make an experience that works with the new remote and also makes sense on everything from a small flat-screen in a studio flat to an insanely big projector in a penthouse.”
Add to that the fact that the TV is a shared experience – from watching content together to just allowing different users to use your app at different times – it’s not the intimate experience we have learned to facilitate on iOS. It should still be personal, but it’s not personal to the same person all the time. Think of Netflix with their user picker at startup, or the tvOS AirBnB app with it’s avatar picker at the bottom of the screen.
Next was the Siri Remote and interactions via it. This is one complex device packed in a deceptively small form factor – from the microphone to the trackpad, gyroscope and accelerometer, this is not your usual television remote. We can now touch, swipe, swing, shake, click and talk to our media centre. The exciting thing for us as app developers is that almost all of this is open for us to use, either out of the box (for apps) or as custom interactions from raw event streams (particularly useful for games).
As you might expect from Apple, they were keen to stress that there were expectations for certain buttons that you should respect. Specifically, the menu and play/pause buttons. I like that they are encouraging conformity – it’s very much what people expect from Apple, but found it a bit silly when demonstrating how one might use the remote in landscape as a controller for a racing game. This, to me, felt a bit like dogma. If you want this to become a great gaming device, accept the natural limitations of the remote and push game controllers as the right choice here. Instead they kept going on about the remote and controllers being first class citizens in all circumstances.
Speaking to an indie game developer friend about the potential of the device, he said that he would really like three things from Apple, at least, before hopping on board;
- Stats on Apple TV sales to evaluate the size of the market
- A games pack style version that comes with two controllers to put the device on a par with the consoles
- Removal of the requirement to support the remote as an option in games. Trying to design a game that must also work with the remote is just too limiting and hopefully Apple will realise this as they talk to more games companies.
A key component of the new way of interacting with tvOS (versus iOS) is the inability to set the focus for the user. Instead you guide the “focus engine” as it changes the focus for the user, in response to their gestures. This gives uniformity, again, and also means that apps cannot become bad citizens and switch the focus under the user. One could imagine the temptation to do this being hard to resist for some kinds of apps – breaking news or the latest posts in a social stream, perhaps.
Instead you use invisible focus guides between views and focusable properties on views to help the engine know what the right thing to do is. At one point in the presentations the speaker said
“Some people think they need a cursor on the Apple TV…they are wrong”
It seems clear to me that the focus engine is designed specifically to overcome this kind of hack and is a much better solution. If you’ve ever tried to use the cursor remote on some “Smart” TV’s then you’ll know how that feels. If not, imagine a mouse with a low battery after one too many happy hour cocktails.
With the expansive, but still limited resources of the Apple TV hardware, there will be times when there simply is not enough storage for everything that the user wants to install. The same in fact, holds true for iOS already. Putting aside my rant about how cheap memory and storage are and how much Apple cash-in on both by making them premium features, their solution is On-Demand Resources (ODR).
With ODR you can mark resources as being one of three types which change when, and if, they are downloaded, and how they may be purged under low resource conditions. Apple want you to bundle up your resources (images, videos, data, etc, but not code) into resource packs and to tag them. You tag them as either
- Download only on demand
Install come bundled with the app itself (splash screen, on-boarding, first levels, etc). Prefetch are downloaded automatically, but after launching the app and on demand are as you might expect – on demand from the app. On demand can be purged, using various heuristics as to how likely they are to affect the user/app – things like last accessed date and priority flags.
It highly specific but its highly specific to exactly the type of content Apple so desperately need to woo and who are likely wondering if they can afford to commit time and effort to an untested platform. As we’ve seen with the watchOS 2, developers are feeling somewhat wary of investing a lot of time in new platforms when they also have to maintain their existing ones, start moving to Swift, adopt the latest iOS 9 features, and so on.
I think this is a big deal because what Apple are providing is what so many third parties have been offering for years, to differing degrees of success. This is their Cordova, their PhoneGap or, perhaps most closely, their React Native. This is a fully Apple approved, and Apple supported, hybrid app development solution that your tranche of web developers are going to be able to use. If this ever comes to iOS it could open up apps to developers and businesses that just cannot afford a native app team, or the services of an app agency (assuming your business is all about vending content and you can live with a template look and feel). I think this could be really big in the future and in typical Apple fashion they are keeping it very low key for now.
They kept teasing that we were all there to find out how to get featured (certainly people were taking more photos there than anywhere else) but before that they spoke about tuning your apps for the TV. This included useful tricks and tips for the well documented frustrations of trying to enter text on the tvOS remote (make sure to mark email fields as such – Apple will offer a recently used email list if you do) to examples of using built-in technologies to share data instead of asking the user to do work.
To the delight of my friends who work there, they demonstrated the Not On The High Street App and it’s use of Bonjour to discover the users iPhone/iPad and push the product they want to sell into the basket of the app on that platform. From there the user can complete their purchase very quickly – something that would be fiddly to do on the TV (slow keyboard, no Apple Pay, no Credit Card scanner).
Next came another feature that I think could hint at new directions for iOS in the future – the top shelf. If the user choses to put your app in the top row of apps, then, when it’s selected, that app gets to run a top shelf extension that populates the shelf with static or dynamic image content. This is the closest thing to a Windows Phone live tile experience that we’ve seen so far and, as I say, I think it could signpost a future “live” experience for iOS too. A blend of a Today Widget and a Top Shelf Widget could be very interesting.
Finally came the session they were promising; App Store Distribution. The key take-aways for me were
- Don’t forget other markets (after the US the biggest app stores are Japan, China, UK, Australia, Canada and Germany)
- Keep your app title short (typing is hard on tvOS)
- Spend time getting your keywords right (and avoid wasting space with things like plurals)
- Let Apple know 3-4 weeks before a major release of your app (email@example.com)
- Make your app the very best it can be and mindful of the tvOS platform
Then it was on to a reception with some delicious canapés and a selection of drinks. This wasn’t what made it great though. What made it great were all the Apple people in the room, giving everyone time who wanted it. This was not the Apple of old and it was all the better for it. The more of this kind of interaction they can facilitate the stronger their platform will be for us.
The Future of TV is Apps?
I think the future of consumer electronics is a multi-screen ecosystem where the user interface and, of course the form factor itself, follows the function to which it is in service.
Clearly, the television could become a critical screen in this future. I believe that, even as we get new immersive entertainment and story-telling options (virtual reality, 3D, and who knows what else), the passive television experience will persist. Sometimes all you want to do is just sit back and be entertained with nothing more taxing than the pause button.
A TV with apps allows this but also, perhaps, makes this more complex. When all I want to do is binge on Archer, a system with apps might not be what I want to navigate. That being said, if all I want to do is binge on Archer, and this can be done with a simple “Hey Siri, play Archer from my last unplayed episode”, then it’s a step ahead of my passive TV of old. It had better know I use Netflix and it had better not log me out of Netflix every few weeks like the Fire TV Stick does.
If I then get a notification (that hunts for my attention from watch to phone to television to who knows what else) that reminds me I have to be in town in an hour and that there are problems on the Northern Line so I should leave extra time, I might hit pause, grab my stuff and head out. As I sit on the tube with 20 minutes to kill, I might then say “Hey Siri, continue playing Archer”.
Just as I get to my appointment I find my home has noticed a lack of people and gone into low power mode, via a push notification. If I want, I can quickly reply with my expected arrival home time, so that it can put on the heating in time and also be on high alert for anyone else in my house during that period.
I suspect most of these transactions are being powered by apps, not the OS itself, but I do not expect to interact with the apps in most cases anymore. Apps will become simply the containers for the means of serving me these micro-interactions as I need/want them.
One only has to look at the Media Player shelf, Notification Actions, Today Widgets, Watch Apps, Glances, Complications, 3D Touch Quick Actions, and now the tvOS Top Shelf to see that this is already happening and will only increase as time goes on. Your app will power multiple screen experiences and be tailored for each, with multiple view types, and multiple interactions. Sometimes these will be immersive and last for minutes or hours (games, movie watching, book reading, etc) but other times these be will be micro-interactions of seconds at most (reply to a tweet, check the weather, plan a journey, start a music stream, buy a ticket, complete a checkout). Apps must evolve or die.
That situation is probably a few years off yet, but in the more immediate term, if we want the future of TV to be apps (beyond simply streaming content) then users will need to be persuaded that their TV can be a portal to a connected world.
From playing games to checking the weather to getting a travel report, these are all things for which an apps powered TV could be very useful. It’s frequently on, always connected, and has a nice big screen on which to view what you want to know. Whether users find this easier than going to pick up their iPhone or iPad remains to be seen.
I think Apple see the Apple TV as a Trojan horse. Many years ago, Steve Jobs introduced the iMac as the centre of your digital world; a hub into which you plugged things. I think the Apple TV is the new incarnation of that idea – except the cables have now gone (replaced with the likes of HomeKit, AirPlay and Bonjour), the storage is iCloud and the customisation is through small, focused apps, and not the fully fledged applications of old.
It’s early days and if the iPhone has taught us anything it’s that the early model will rapidly change and improve. Where it actually goes is hard to say, but where it could go is starting to become clear.
Is the future of the TV apps? Probably so, but probably not in the way we think of apps right now. The app is dying, long live the app.