A fully operational Apple TV that showcases third-party applications is coming, with details likely to be revealed as soon as next week during the annual Worldwide Developers Conference.
Yet while the economic and pop-cultural impact of an Apple TV app ecosystem has the potential to exceed (if not dwarf) what exists for iPhones and iPads, don't expect a rerun of 2008 and the early days of the App Store. Here's why.
There will be fewer apps with higher production values
In his insightful (albeit self-serving) post for All Things Digital, Brightcove founder and CEO Jeremy Allaire talked about the 500,000 TV apps already here in on iOS. While it is technically true that users will be able to run virtually any app developed for iPhones or iPads on their Apple TVs (early adopters are already playing around with this via AirPlay and recent generation devices), the vast majority of apps that exist today have no purpose being displayed on the big screen in the living room. (Brightcove develops products that will help developers port and create titles for Apple TV, so don't blame Allaire for wishful thinking.)
Our app expectations have grown appreciably since the debut of the App Store nearly four years ago. In 2008, the top paid app on iTunes was Koi Pond, a virtual aquarium of sorts. Not far behind were other memorable classics including Bubble Wrap and Crazy Pumpkin. By year-end, there was breathless speculation over whether iFart or Pull My Finger would rise to the top of the unofficial flatulence category.
Novelty apps and rudimentary games flourished early on because consumers had few, if any, other entertainment alternatives for their phones. This is of course not the case with television sets. Higher consumer standards combined with greater development costs will make it more prohibitive for amateurs and scammers to participate on the new platform. That is, if Apple even gives them entry at all.
Entertainment and video discovery apps will flourish
While Apple TV will have a small fraction of the apps compared to other iOS devices, it will showcase virtually unlimited entertainment options. The licensing rights for studio-produced entertainment and sporting events (previously available for most consumers via cable and satellite subscriptions) will be reworked at a lightning pace. Just as it did with the music industry, Apple will be able to work a deal with the cable companies (and sooner rather than later, major professional and college sports leagues) that will enable consumers to purchase/lease programming a la carte and on demand, similar to how they buy songs for 99 cents a pop on iTunes. It's unclear to what degree this content will be available and processed via applications rather than direct from iTunes.
A new generation of video and entertainment discovery apps (as well as owned and operated service from Apple) will help consumers find the remaining 99 percent of watchable content that won't have a subscription or one-time fee. This includes YouTube videos shared by members of your social graph, algorithmic recommendations based on previous viewing behavior, and news and entertainment alerts based on your interests as well as individuals and entities you choose to follow.
Look at existing video discovery apps for guidance
You don't need a crystal ball to get a glimpse as to how video entertainment and discovery apps will work on an Apple TV. Apps including Showyou, Squrl and Frequency all provide video recommendations based on a user's interest and social graphs. Anyone with the current "hockey puck" version of Apple TV and at least an iPhone 4 and iPad 2 can experience the future from the comfort of their own living rooms with a simple AirPlay connection. One expects Flipboard to more aggressively get into the space once a next-generation Apple TV is revealed. And of course Apple will build or buy its own solution (although Apple, for a number of reasons, still hasn't figured out social media discovery).
Here is a write-up from earlier this year of the best apps operate on Apple TV via AirPlay.
Context is king
Location-based apps will have minimal utility on an Apple TV. Same goes for point-of-contact apps like Bump and Square that are designed to work while you're out in the wild (and not sprawled on the couch). Just as those developers used the iPhone and iPad to reimagine utilities that did not previously exist (or work nearly as well) on mobile devices, so will a new generation of app developers use Apple TV as a new hub of innovation. From controlling home appliances to turning off the upstairs air conditioning to performing home services we cannot yet fathom, independent developers have a new sandbox in which to create and innovate.
Stay tuned and witness what is possible.