All I Want for Christmas is a Revolutionary Apple TV

By Francisco Tolmasky on

I love TV, like, really love TV. I own every cut-the-cord box you can name, and I still pay for cable too. I’ve also purchased every single Apple TV that Apple has ever shipped. And although they have yet to do so, I honestly believe that Apple could make a truly transformative product in this space. In fact, I think they already have all the key components to do so – they’re just currently lost inside the clunkier product Apple ships today. Simply put:

The Apple TV should just be an AirPlay dongle.
And it should come bundled with every new iPhone and iPad.

In other words, I believe Apple must stop thinking of the Apple TV as a mediocre standalone product and completely reimagine it as an incredible iPhone feature. In this post I’m going to show you how such a pivot would allow Apple to actually deliver an amazing television experience.

We Must Completely Give Up On TV UIs

It’s worth first spending a moment understanding what’s wrong not just with Apple’s television interfaces, but all television interfaces in general. And the answer is basically everything. This is because making a UI for a screen that you interact with from 3 meters away is a fool’s errand. We may laugh that Apple found a way to make a particularly bad television remote, but they really shouldn’t have been working on a remote in the first place.

The television remote is a woefully unexpressive device: it forces you to communicate through a directional vocabulary of up and down keys. Would you like interacting with your computer by only using the arrow keys? How about if I then make you take 10 steps back from your computer and compensate for this by gluing those same arrow keys to a plastic stick? OK, now type your password using just those arrows keys while navigating a virtual keyboard on the screen. See how ridiculus the TV remote is? The original TV remote is only a reasonable experience when compared to its predessor: literally having to stand up and walk to your to TV set to fiddle with a dial that was physically attached to it.

This is how we operate a television today.

Now realize that the Apple TV remote of today is not that different from the original remote. Apple has merely expanded these arrow keys into a touch surface. In other words, the main design proposition of this device seems to be that operating a touch pad from 3 meters away is easier than arrow keys. Is this theory correct? Trick question, the answer is no one cares because you’re choosing between two really bad solutions, so it doesn’t really matter which is marginally better. Both are ultimately tools originally conceived to be used close to their targets, only later to be clumsily ripped out and glued on to a stick. We’ve had sixty years since the introduction of the television remote to figure this out and we haven’t made much progress, which means it might not be an idea with a lot of room to grow.

Not a lot has changed.

The remote itself is of course only half the story. The other half is what goes on on the television screen itself, and this is just as bad. Consider that if a television interface works really well, people should barely be spending any time using it at all. The primary purpose of your television is to watch television content. You are not there to use some productivity app or do long form reading, you’re trying to get to the latest episode of Game of Thrones as quickly as possible. And yet despite this simple truth, there is a worrying trend of filling our television screens with more tables and grids and keyboard representations.

This is reminiscent of cargo-culting we see from junior engineers – they will often fill their apps with overcomplicated widgets since that’s what apps are “supposed to be”, as if their true purpose is to look impressive in the background of a Star Trek episode. But with televisions it is even more important to allow the content to monopolize the screen as often as possible. This is the primary reason UIKit was not a revelation to television. It may very well be the best toolkit for making attractive television interfaces, but you really should be avoiding making any sort of heavy interface in the first place.

Unless the goal was for Apple to seriously enter the console gaming market, porting UIKit was just not a big deal for the Apple TV, and probably a huge time sink. Now I don’t personally believe Apple is seriously taking on consoles, but even if they were, the dirty little secret on the App Store is that a large number of games aren’t even written with UIKit anyways, so its still not that important. Perhaps the hope was that the plethora of iPhone games would create a Halo effect for the Apple TV, but as we’ve seen that simply hasn’t panned out. Most people just want to watch Netflix, and UIKit hasn’t really enabled a monumentally improved Netflix experience. So instead the Apple TV is simply in the position of being The Most Expensive Netflix Box™.

Not the revolution I was hoping for.

Siri is not a Silver Bullet

You’ve probably noticed by this point that I haven’t mentioned Siri at all. That’s mainly because I just don’t really use it all that much. In theory, Siri nobely tries to address many of the issues I’ve discussed, but the reality is that the technology just isn’t there yet. To make matters worse, Siri isn’t a very forgiving interface – there is a huge frustration cliff when Siri doesn’t understand you, and trust me Siri will inevitably not understand you. There’s no going back like if you choose an incorrect menu item, or editing the text you spoke aloud if it almost understood you correctly. Everything with Siri is all or nothing, forcing you to repeat entire searches in the hopes that this time it will understand you. As such, Siri ends up existing in one of two states: feeling like delightful future magic, or being the absolutely most frustrating thing on the planet.

Siri seems like a feature stubbornly pretending to be a mature product, when its still in its very early days. Compare this to Alexa on the Amazon TV which handles all this much more gracefully because it embraces the incomplete state the technology is currently in. For example, when Alexa doesn’t quite understand what you’re saying, it will give you a list of possible interpretations to choose from. From personal use, I can attest that this goes a long way in avoiding the frustration cliff by giving you an escape hatch. It works more like a human, asking you to clarify instead of giving up. Returning to Siri after this seems like an archaic exercise in precision: note that to this day a Siri search of “ninja turlte” (no “s”) will bring up no results, while “ninja turtles” brings up many results (confusingly, using the text-based search on Apple TV works just fine with the “ninja turtle” query).

But I don’t want to get too caught up in comparing voice interfaces since I don’t really think they’re the right solution even if we worked out all the kinks, of which there are many. I’m really just not all that excited about talking to my television – it often just feels like a band-aid for avoiding the miserable experience of typing on a television. More importantly though, the current trajectory of voice interfaces feel awfully limiting. They seem constrained to best tackling the traditional problems the remote tried to solve, instead of opening up the possibilities of what you can do with your content on your television.

Enter the iPhone and AirPlay Dongle

There is no better argument that the TV UI is an evolutionary dead-end than the fact that the most successful UI paradigm shift of the last decade came about by embracing the exact opposite techniques: where the television employed indirect manipulation to operate a distant screen, the iPhone allows you to directly interact with a screen that’s closer than ever before. The brilliance of AirPlay is that it gives us a shot of harnessing this proven direct interaction for televisions as well.

Using the iPhone to control a television was actually what first turned me into an Apple TV believer. I was visiting some friends in 2010 and we were trying to find something to watch. Usually this would lead to half an hour of not being quite satisfied enough to choose anything. But on this day, we instead starting streaming funny YouTube videos to the television through AirPlay. It wasn’t a perfect experience – AirPlay has always been a bit finicky – but it was a delightfully different TV experience. There had simply never been anything else like it. It was so naturally cooperative and social. Unlike the traditional television experience of the entire room barking orders to the one person holding the remote, we were all using the TV as a communal resource. And it was fun! Instead of finding content, we were focused on sharing content.

Simple but fun.

This is the epitome of disruption. It isn’t a marginal improvement on an existing pretty-good experience. It doesn’t involve years of complicated licensing deals to get the big entrenched players to cooperate on your master plans for the television (especially after they’re already skeptical of you for what you did to the music industry). Quite the contrary, its an easily dismissable, “not real TV” experience that doesn’t seem to directly compete with anything until it’s too late. It creates a divide between the new generation and television executives who don’t understand why anyone would bother with low quality short content on YouTube. And yet, YouTube is soon set to overtake traditional programming, and so too could AirPlay overtake traditional TV.

The problem is that AirPlay is available to too few people today, so my initial experience has unfortunately only been repeated a few times in the seven years since. If anything, AirPlay has become less reliable in that time, since AirPlay is merely a supporting character in the Apple TV story and doesn’t seem to be a big focus for Apple right now. But let’s imagine if Apple replaced the Apple TV entirely with an HDMI dongle they shipped for free with every iPhone that was solely responsible for enabling AirPlay on your television.

Ownership and New Experiences

People take great pride and ownership in their content and they love being the ones to turn their friends on to new music and movies. If we imagine a world where everyone had AirPlay that just worked, you could share your content seamlessly by physically visiting your friends and watching a show together by streaming to their TV – much better than signing into their Apple TV. I currently carry around an Amazon Fire Stick so that when I stay in a hotel I can just hook it up and watch my content instead of the dismal pay-per-view options – an AirPlay dongle could make this the norm for everyone. Your content having a “home base” in your phone creates a sense of ownership and a comfortable physicality to the experience that endlessly buying hardware pucks to access cloud content simply doesn’t. It’s just like your music: it may “live” in the cloud, but its home base is your phone which you then stream to headphones, or speakers, or your car.

Beyond this, by making your personal device the main hub of your content, it opens up the possibility to make awesome second-screen experiences on iPhones and iPads. I would love to be able to post short clips of what I’m watching on my television onto my social media using a smart “post clip” button on my phone. I wish I had Amazon’s X-Ray feature built right into my iPad so I could quickly look up related shows and content as I watch, or answer the inevitable “where have I seen that guy?” question without disrupting the main viewing experience. I want a shared “Up Next” list where my friends can queue videos to watch. The possibilities are endless, covering the entire spectrum of solitary and shared experiences.

A huge benefit with this sort of model is you are simply asking developers to add a new feature to their existing apps, instead of having them write entire new apps. We already ask them to do this every year with every new revision of the iPhone and the inevitable hardware feature-of-the-year (3D touch, AR, etc.). Why not have a year of second-screen experiences? We’d still be transitioning television channels to apps, just iPhone apps instead of TV apps. Apps like HQ could be the perfect union of old television and iPhone apps – you’d stream the announcer content while each person participated individually on their phone. Today its probably not worth investing time and effort to make a dedicated Apple TV HQ app, but a streaming experience would be much simpler.

Existing fun apps could immediately be enhanced.

The jobs of “channel” apps like Netflix, Hulu, etc. would be greatly simplified as well. Netflix streamed from your iPhone to your TV is completely sufficient for most people. Sure, there may be some dedicated set-top boxes for aficionados that really care about 4K, but for the vast majority of people who are probably already used to watching shows on their phones anyways, why bother? Or better put, why bother now before most people even own 4K TV’s - most TV’s sold today still aren’t even 4K. The Amazon Prime Video fiasco could have been avoided entirely, as the iPhone app that’s existed for years would have just streamed to your TV by default. Even if they had gone out of their way to disable AirPlay streaming, they would have pissed off every iPhone user with a TV, instead of the much smaller number of people who just own an Apple TV.

Apple Should Be Cheating

Apple has for the last 10 years basically chosen to wage their television war on other people’s terms, playing much more fair than they could have. They’ve been content to present themselves based on obtuse specs and features like 4K support, hard drive size, and “running iOS”. With an AirPlay dongle, Apple could cheat and immediately leverage their existing user base to quickly overtake the competition. The Chromecast and Fire Stick prove that standalone streaming dongles can be made dirt cheap, so including one with every iPhone seems as feasible as any of the other hardware features they’ve added in the past, and it would immediately create a huge installed base for the device. Additionally selling it is as a sub-$40 option for existing iPhone users would probably create a lot of “impulse buys” and further solidify their position.

I guarantee you that if the AirPlay dongle shipped standard with every iPhone and iPad, the Apple TV app lull would be broken and developers would immediately start creating truly innovative and awesome TV experiences – the same way they quickly embraced larger screens, 3D Touch, and Face ID. One of the reasons that Apple TV apps can have the luxury of being poor experiences today is that on the TV content is king. No one would actually switch from Prime Video to Netflix over a bad experience if the show they ultimately care about wasn’t available there. It’s thus foolish to waste energy trying to convince these developers to improve, especially since the Apple TV can’t flex much muscle due to merely being “just another set-top box”. However the iPhone isn’t “just another phone”, and so it would help Apple shake itself loose from this chicken-and-egg situation – huge numbers of iPhone users would be expecting iPhone apps to work well with their TVs.

The console gaming market would feel shock waves as well. Apple sells more iPhones per year than Xbox One, Playstation 4, and Nintendo Switches combined. Instead of buying an expensive Apple TV that has access to some so-so games, people would by default have access to “non-hardcore” TV gaming experiences for free. And maybe for a lot of people that’s enough. Maybe non-4K Vainglory streaming to your TV through the iPhone is just good enough. If the developer of Vainglory knew that the intersection of every iPhone and TV owner could definitely take advantage of such a product, they might heavily invest in it, whereas today they’d essentially be targeting the vanishingly small Apple TV market.

From a business perspective, your television set would naturally become part of the Apple ecosystem, and be transformed into a natural lock-in vehicle for the iPhone. Currently Apple is fighting each of these battles separately, trying to convince you to replace your watch, your set-top-box, your car (?), with the promise that it will all work better together if you just buy into every single one. In the process, they have to invest resources in markets that aren’t their core (such as the iPhone), or markets that they’ve made some progress in but are far from mature (like the iPad). All this to chase the siren of “more markets” and under the false assumption that the phone market is either won or saturated. Quite the contrary, I think Apple should be using these technologies to instead double down on the iPhone and in the process subordinate other markets instead of enter them directly. Apple should think about the television like the camera: Apple didn’t decimate the camera market by making a DSLR, they did so by making the iPhone be good enough at taking pictures.

Apple, Please Make This Device

Going back to that night 7 years ago when I had my first awesome AirPlay experience, I was absolutely convinced that Apple saw this too. I was sure that AirPlay must be their master plan, and that the Apple TV wasn’t really “just a hobby”. Yet, with each passing revision of the Apple TV, it seems clearer that Apple has no intention of doing anything like this. As it stands, the Apple TV is a product without a vision, without a story. They are content to see what sticks to the walls and send mix signals. There’s no better example of this than when Apple for an entire year continued selling the cheaper, App Store-less 3rd generation Apple TV alongside the new flagship App Store-enabled Apple TV, in effect ensuring that developers couldn’t even rely on new Apple TV customers having access to their apps.

We’ve all been acting like there’s something right around the corner, that Apple is building up to something. But the Apple TV has now existed for 10 years, so even if something did happen it would be a little late to retcon back and say there was a grand design to all of this. The murmurings of Apple tackling a full blown television set dismay me even more, and I sincerely hope they don’t attempt this. I dread Apple being forced to compete on crude base-level requirements like television size or resolution. I want Apple to focus on what they’re good at, not concerning themselves with how to justify an obscene margin on what will almost certainly be a repackaged Samsung screen.

Apple doesn’t need to make a television, they need to transform televisions into just another “made for iPhone” device. By including an AirPlay dongle with iPhones, Apple would make phone experience more magical: the phone would make your TV better, how cool is that? AirPlay is an awesome, underutilized, product just waiting to be unleashed. Here’s hoping that we see an AirPlay Dongle in 2018!