Before the launch of Apple’s App store, the mobile application marketplace reminded me of a state-run grocery store I saw in Eastern Berlin in September 1989: colorless and half-empty, offering up aisle after aisle of unwanted goods. That all changed last July when Steve Jobs unveiled the App Store and vendors, carriers and consumers all rushed after mobile apps like Trabant-driving East Berliners in search of a Big Mac.
The App Store was the first cohesive effort to fuse a full-fledged developer ecosystem with a highly integrated marketplace and deliver the results to a powerful device that made all sorts of new applications possible. The end result was an order of magnitude increase in both the number of available apps and resulting downloads to end users.
Today’s TV application marketplace is in a similar, pre-App Store state today: lots of competing software platforms, a growing number of connected devices (but none dominant) and a fairly small number of apps. So, when will the TV have its App Store moment?
To answer that question, it pays to compare the two markets further. Much like the mobile market, PayTV has been controlled by the iron fist of the carriers over the past decade, leaving little room for innovation outside of DVRs and high-definition video. While some interactive features have been integrated, particularly by IPTV providers, there has been little to no development of open application marketplaces by carriers.
The good news is that there are many more hardware options for acquiring and using apps for on-TV display than there are for mobile apps: game consoles, media adapters, third-party hardware (such as Apple TV), computers and, increasingly, the TV itself. The combined force of such diverse enabling technologies is likely to be harnessed to eventually create a real market. Because of the more bountiful options for hardware and connectivity in the TV space vis-a-vis mobile (where control of the network and handset is nearly required), the door for new entrants can be kicked open more quickly. Once someone gets the right mix of a well-tuned storefront, a bounty of enticing apps, and good on-screen experience, the consumer will see the light.
Some alternatives have shown early signs of success — particularly game consoles. Xbox Live has proven there is a market for downloadable games with Xbox Live, and has also had success outside of the gaming category with Netflix Instant Streaming. But even accounting for Xbox Live Arcade and Netflix360, a similar tectonic shift for TV apps equivalent to the arrival of Apple’s App Store has yet to occur.
Right now, the odds-on favorites in a TV-app market are Microsoft, Apple and Nintendo, all of which have end-to-end hardware, software and online delivery assets, not to mention robust app development environments (a key difference from carriers and traditional consumer electronics players). Google and Yahoo could also seize opportunity here; Android is soon to appear in set-top boxes, and Yahoo’s widget platform has proved quite popular. Lastly, don’t count out players like Boxee and Vizio.
The underpinnings for a TV app revolution are already in place. While there’s no clear winner yet, the rise of connected TVs and associated platforms and the continued push by scrappy competitors to control the third screen mean the TV application market place will soon be as vibrant as Potsdamer Plotz in the summertime.