During my speculation last year about the new Apple TV that was soon to be announced and released, I was most excited about imagining a possible new paradigm for discovering and interacting with apps on the platform. At the time, I called it "apps as channels", and here is how it would work:
Unlike the typical iOS / tvOS / watchOS home screen, which is a grid or other arrangement of app icons, this paradigm would also allow apps to load a full screen of current, up-to-minute content in the background, without the user actually launching the app (and remember the Apple TV is always on, always connected to power and always connected to the internet, so these background downloads would also happen while it was not currently active). This content would vary depending on the app, but for social networks like Twitter or Facebook, it could be a listing of top newsfeed items (either customized for the user, or from the network in general). For YouTube and Vimeo, it could be the top trending videos of the moment. For shopping apps, it could be featured items. For news apps, it would be the latest headlines or videos, and for games it might be the most interesting recent matches or replays, or an enticement of a reward that could be collected by launching into the game.
As this content is up-to-the-minute and preloaded in the background, it enables a new way for the user to browse their apps: by "channel surfing". The user would launch the channel or browse mode, and immediately see the full screen of current content for the first app. At a glance, they can decide whether they want to dive further into that specific app or content, or if nothing looks particularly interesting, they just swipe left to switch to the next "channel". Again, the full screen of current content for their next app is already preloaded and shows up instantly on screen. Another glance determines whether the user wants to dive into the app or a specific piece of content by pressing the play button on the remote, or keep surfing by swiping left.
I believe this new paradigm would be a huge benefit to both users, app developers, and Apple in several key ways:
Personally, as an iOS user, I often forget about or never get around to checking apps that I downloaded and found interesting at one point. I just don't remember all of them, and the process of looking for the app, launching it, waiting for it to load and then navigating to possibly interesting content is just too much hassle most of the time. However, if I'm sitting on the couch and looking for something interesting, the ability to quickly jump through the current best content of all my apps in a quick-glance fashion, and then dive into one only if it has content I am interested in right now would finally make those forgotten apps more useful again. Plus, it helps me discover something interesting that I would have missed otherwise. So the user benefit is pretty clear.
For developers, there is much talk and consternation about the fact that users are downloading and using fewer apps these days, as they hit their limit of "enough apps to cover the bases for the things I want to do". This is leading to attempts to push content through already popular apps like Facebook with Instant Articles, or through chatbots integrated into popular messaging apps. But cable and TV already have a great model for helping users discover content they don't normally seek out or view, and that is channel surfing. Bringing that paradigm to the app world suddenly means that tvOS users can make use of and easily check in on a hundred apps or more, instead of just a dozen. Which is great news for developers trying to build an audience an competing against a few big apps that already enjoy massive attention.
For Apple, this makes their platform more interesting more of the time, and would drive engagement up significantly. I don't know about other AppleTV users, but I rarely use apps on mine. Instead, I just watch shows that I like on Netflix, HBO, etc. But I can get that same experience on any set top box, game console, or computer. What drove the massive success of iOS was the great apps developers made and users got hooked on. Similarly, for the AppleTV to take off as a platform, it will require more than just the same content users can get from any other source. Sure, Apple is reportedly working on developing their own TV content, but once again leveraging an app ecosystem to engage users and showcase the talents of great developers and content creators is a far larger advantage, and one that could really make the AppleTV stand out from its competitors.
The last component of the "apps as channels" paradigm is an optional "discovery" feature. This feature would temporarily download apps that the user has not purchased or downloaded themselves, only for inclusion in this "channel surfing" rotation. The apps would be selected and downloaded automatically based on other apps the user has (like the old "Genius" feature of iTunes and the App Store), as well as based on features and recommendations by Apple's App Store editors. The number of temporary apps downloaded would be limited based on available space. Once downloaded into temporary storage, these apps could then appear in the channel surfing mode with their own current content, allowing users to discover something they may never have known to look for before. In the case of these temporary apps, if the user chose to dive into them and open up the preview content in detail, the OS would ask permission to move the app from "temporary" status to "downloaded" status, or in the case of a paid app, ask if the user wanted to purchase or subscribe. Apps that the user has surfed past multiple times without selecting would be switched out of the rotation for other suggested apps.
The Extension Route
Clearly, this wished-for paradigm was not part of the new AppleTV, which instead launched with the same grid of app icons on the home screen that the iPhone and iPad have (what a wasted opportunity). But in thinking about this more recently, I realized that it would be feasible for Apple to still implement this channel mode for all current and future tvOS apps by introducing a channel extension.
Similar to "today extensions" (the widgets that live in the notification center of iOS), "channel extensions" could be separate pieces of UI that get displayed outside of the app. But instead of being inside a notification center (which doesn't exist on tvOS), these extensions would be displayed in a new Channel View of tvOS. Once the user launched this view, it would display the full screen content as described above for any apps that created such an extension. In this way, Apple could keep their current grid of app icons, while still enabling "apps as channels" functionality as a secondary way of browsing and discovering content.
Regardless of exact implementation details, Apple has a lot of work to do in order to make the AppleTV shine as a platform, and particularly as a platform for apps. Extensions are an established approach in iOS for apps to push their content into system-level views or even other apps. It would be great to see Apple leverage that approach in making apps more like TV channels, and easier to discover, glance through, and enjoy.