Will TV Ever Get an App Store Moment?

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.

Question of the week

Will TV apps ever see the same kind of rapid adoption spurred by the iPhone and its App Store?
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5 Comments Subscribers to comment

  1. What about Sony? Not only do they have a ton of knowledge in consoles and technologies (blu ray, etc.), they also own content. They also have the cash to compete with MSFT.

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  2. I think you’re right, Cameron, Sony is definitely going to play. Their assets in the PS3, LCD and Blu-ray markets are undeniable. They do fall down a bit when it comes to creating strong online marketplaces – the PS3 market is a good example of one that has been late and, quite honestly, a bit lacking compared to the competition. They clearly excel in hardware and that’ll be their main competitive weapon.

    Last point – I think Blu-ray manufacturers are probably the third big potential entrant in this space of TV apps. Sony will be there, both with PS3 and separate players. In fact, all the Blu-ray OEMs are looking to integrate good web services, and the question remains of do they let their adherence to the BD-Live/Java roots slow them down relative to the other players.

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  3. If Apple made it drop dead simple to build and distribute apps for the phone, why not the television? The challenge so far for Apple has had constrained access to content for ATV. In addition, consumers in general think of the television experience as separate from everything else. If they add ATV to the app store ecosystem and developers can build apps that work on the phone and ATV then they may have something. The real trick is to enable the consumer to easily see the benefit. Perhaps a dock for the iPhone or Touch might help. Of course, not all apps would be applicable but definitely games and such.

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    1. I think the TV environment hold alot of potential – but there is a bigger set of variables for apps than in mobile environment. Take gaming: Gaming has to factor in multiplayer, online potential, and multiple inputs/controllers in the living room. The mobile gaming environment is generally single player (though not always), often times isn’t an online game (though this isn’t always the case) but never generally has to factor in multiple controllers. Now, all of these are not overly difficult for Apple to create an environment for these apps to be created, but it does speak to how transferring the same app for the phone may be difficult as the gaming environment is much different.

      Will Apple push their app-store into the living room? I think so. And I think the focus will be in large part games. But creating gaming and app market and pushing adoption in the living room is not a straightforward task, and actually may be more challenging than the mobile market.

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