How TV apps are about to remake the small screen and unleash a new land grab

The app ecosystem is finally making a real appearance on TVs and what they do next will make today's TV feel like the VHS era.
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief
Image: Apple

As fast as the technology industry moves, some things still take forever.

Apps on TVs are a good example. This has been an arena filled with empty promises, false starts, and lame efforts.

Apps have technically been on TVs for years, but they've been dominated by disappointing experiences from traditional channels that you'll find on Samsung and Vizio TVs or the unorganized hornet's nest of apps on Roku--which is still a great little box.

I've been writing for years that the app model that has been so successful on smartphones would eventually come to TV and bring a major upgrade to the concept of the TV channel.

This new model is destined to combine the things we love about the evolution of TV--on-demand viewing, binge watching seasons, instant access without fiddling with tapes or discs, and pay-per-view for premium content--with a slew of new features that will quickly make today's TV feel like the bygone era of VHS tapes and bunny ear antennas.

It's these new possibilities that make the app-as-TV-channel paradigm so exciting. Here are four quick examples of some of the new things TV apps (in the smartphone model) will enable viewers to do:

1. Experience more forms of content. With apps, next generation channels can mix their traditional programming with highlight clips, audio stories, slideshows, and even headlines of text stories.

2. Scan news headlines and interact with your phone. For news channels, in addition to live video programming and video clips from top stories, they will be enable to quickly scan through headlines with a remote and flag stories to read later (on a smartphone app, for example). There's also the possibility of allowing users to set up custom news tickers.

3. Get information bubbles to enhance viewing. As you're watching shows, you'll be able to get live, up-to-date bubbles of information pop up on the screen to explain things and update viewers with new information on old programming. A few shows have already done information bubbles effectively (see the "Facts are Stubborn Things" bubbles on HBO's John Adams DVDs), but these are done with static information.

4. Shop interactively. To some, this is akin to the holy grail of digital television. It involves everything from linking directly to something you want to buy from a commercial to getting more information about products you see used in shows to getting interactive coupons for products that are presented directly or subtly--expect a brave new world of product placement--as you watch. For better or worse, the app paradigm on TV will finally make all of this possible. It could mean fewer commercials and more interactive coupons and product placements.

There are many other possibilities--good and bad--but the point is that the appification of TV channels will unlock new capabilities and create a new set of winners and losers in the TV business. New empires will be built by the companies that evolve the fastest and the best. And existing empires will be scattered by the companies that cling to their old business models and old content paradigms and are slow to react.

The 2015 Apple TV is the first platform to bring the app experience to its TV box in a polished, highly usable way that gives us a glimpse of where this is going. Google won't be far behind. It's been trying to get the Android app experience on to the TV in a variety of ways for the last several years. It just hasn't nailed it yet. Amazon is also a threat with Fire TV, but it doesn't have the Google or Apple app ecosystems to give it a head start. Roku, Samsung, LG, Vizio, and others are going to make a run at this as well. Competing ecosystems will proliferate in the next few years. There's also the possibility that a player like Netflix could create its own box and turn itself into a platform or closely partner with an existing player.

However it plays it, the new land grab is on--for both platforms and the new app channels. It will take years for it to play out as the next generation television boxes and services evolve. But, this new paradigm will reshape how and what people watch, it will upend the advertising model (which is already under attack from DVRs), it will commercialize television in new ways, and it will drastically lower the bar for new channels to enter the game.

For viewers, you will have an easy-to-use and inexpensive box, you will download the apps/channels you want, and you will have quick have access to all of the content you care about the most. What's not to like?

The open question is how much it will cost. It will certainly be less than the $100 bill that current cable operators stick most customers with--people are tired of paying for so much they don't use--but it will likely be more than the $20 that most cord cutters pay for a handful of subscriptions to services like Netflix and Hulu. Most likely, it will vary much more widely based on what you actually consume, which many people will welcome.

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. As a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

Previously on the Monday Morning Opener:

Editorial standards