Will television become dominated by apps?

As the new Apple TV enters the market, are we ready to give up on channel-browsing?

"The future of TV is apps," Apple chief executive Tim Cook said this week as he launched the technology giant's new version of its Apple TV device, the diminutive set-top box that hooks up to your television set.

But are we ready to give up the instinctive channel-browsing habits that have defined TV viewing for decades?

The "appification" of the living room TV-watching experience has yet to go really mainstream – the Apple TV and rival devices such as Roku, the Google Chromecast and the Amazon Fire TV, and so-called smart TVs, have been around for years, and some of them are reasonably popular, but it's safe to say that most people still grapple with a few remotes with dozens of buttons and maybe a Sky set-top recorder.

However, in Cook’s vision of the future, instead of browsing channels, your television interface features a grid of, well, apps, much as you’d find on your smartphone or tablet.


He pointed out that a lot of content viewing is already based on apps, as people increasingly view music videos, clips and programmes on Netflix or YouTube apps on their mobile devices, and the Apple TV and its rivals push that model into the heart of your living room.

With a smart, minimalist remote control, a dizzying array of buttons give way to a touch pad and voice-controlled commands.

Seductive vision

By opening an app store for the device, any computer interaction that can work on a living-room screen will inevitably be created, with games the most obvious opportunity.

But it is likely to go much further – interactive fitness apps or a soothing meditation app.

It’s certainly a seductive vision, but is unlikely to prove as disruptive to the TV industry as the iPod and iTunes proved to the music industry.

The economics of the TV industry is far more diverse, for one thing, and varies sharply from country to country, and from one type of programming to another.

Above all, there’s a lot of extra value accrued by TV networks through bundling their content into channels.

As a case study to understand why, consider the English Premier League.

Could any one club, with its own app on your home screen offering a subscription to its own fans, hope to generate proportionately as much as the league collectively managed by auctioning its rights to Sky for £5.1 billion earlier this year?

That’s the value of bundling, right there, and it extends across all sorts of broadcasting models.

Right now, it’s difficult to tell whether the future of TV will be apps, at least in the medium term, but it’s clear the future of TV is most certainly software in the long term.

Above all, if we rid our living rooms of those execrable remote controls, it will be a most welcome revolution.