Apple TV invites Siri and the App Store to movie night

Apple TV set-top box with large television showing the tvOS home screen, with a carousel of movie posters.

The biggest news from the Apple event doesn’t run iOS. Alongside massive enhancements to its iPhone and iPad product family, Apple today focused on a product it once publicly considered a “hobby.”

For the first time since its introduction, Apple TV saw a major interface overhaul and the addition of new voice navigation features to aid in Siri-powered universal search. But more significantly than anything shown off today is the potential for what Apple TV can become tomorrow—just as Apple has conquered millions of pockets, it’s now set its eye on your living room.

Apple is coming for your media console.

Gone are the days of Apple TV being an awkward “fourth peg” on Steve Jobs’s proverbial three-legged stool of Mac, iPod, and iPhone.1 Apple is finished dipping its toes into the television space, and it’s diving right in with a new operating system called tvOS.

Like watchOS, tvOS is based on iOS and heavily reliant on existing user interface paradigms. It inherits many of the same APIs and frameworks that have made iOS so successful for third-party developers. But unlike watchOS 1, tvOS is launching with an App Store on day one. And just as Apple facilitated the walled garden that allowed third-party developers to build upon the iPhone, tvOS will facilitate the next generation of experiences in the living room.

An OS for all seasons

For all of Apple’s quotes about apps being the future of TV, the current state of tvOS is centered around content. Movies and TV shows are given customized, highly visual landing pages that provide context for the actors and directors who created them. On this page, users can see synopses, read reviews, and click around to associated content.

The most important part of this interface is a section that illustrates where the content is available—whether that’s on Netflix, Hulu, or the iTunes Store. This unification solves one of the fundamental frustrations of the traditional Apple TV interface, and of set-top boxes more generally until this point.

The user wants to watch Blade Runner. She doesn’t care if Netflix has a licensing agreement with Warner Brothers to stream that movie. She doesn’t want to investigate if her cable provider offers it on-demand for two dollars cheaper than a rental on Amazon Prime. She just wants to watch Blade Runner, wherever it’s available, right now.

The user doesn’t care what service is streaming the content. The user cares about the content.

To the extent that users have paid subscriptions to HBO or Showtime, these content availability tags are relevant. And especially when seeing a movie would necessitate a paid rental, the source information is valuable. But beyond that, nothing about the content source matters to the user, so tvOS removes any other complication or ambiguity.

Based on the interface and content source labels, it’s easy to imagine a future iteration on the Apple TV that includes a content streaming service from Apple. The fabled over-the-top service may have been mired down in licensing issues before this afternoon’s event, but it seems possible that the “iTunes Movies” and “iTunes TV Shows” tiles will be replaced in short order.2

Siri is your co-pilot

If content is the backbone of the operating system’s information architecture, a basic grid of icons can’t be the best way to navigate it. In the vein of Amazon Fire TV and in keeping with its recent focus on proactive virtual assistant services, Apple leans on Siri as the primary navigation paradigm for tvOS.

The new Apple TV remote has physical buttons and a slick new multi-touch directional pad. But its most significant addition is a microphone through which users can make plain-English requests of Siri.

Siri is that friend who’s constantly recommending new shows for you to watch. But she means well.

“Show me funny movies from the ’80s.” “I want to watch something about space with my kids.” “What was that great TV show with Amy Poehler?” Siri can process complex requests like these and automatically display a list of recommendations. And because tvOS is source-agnostic, these movies might come from a user’s Netflix account, their HBO subscription, or from iTunes.

Siri rears her algorithmic head throughout the operating system, allowing users to skip ahead during shows or even jump back and temporarily add subtitles when they ask, “what’d he just say?” The system’s traditional features to check the weather or sports scores are available on tvOS, as well, including all-new HDTV–friendly interfaces.

If Apple’s recent investment in predictive and machine-learning technologies are any indication, Siri will only continue to grow more knowledgable and more capable. Just as Apple Music is curated by real flesh-and-bone humans and surfaces recommendations by algorithms, a future version of Apple TV with smart personalized content suggestions could lean more heavily on the increasing utility of Siri.

The revolution will be televised

These features of the new Apple TV are enhancements or refinements of what it could already do. But what’s most interesting about tvOS are the things it can do that we haven’t even imagined yet.

tvOS comes with an App Store for third-party developers to build apps. The next streaming platform like Netflix or Hulu could be built and distributed against the tvOS platform, and the tvOS App Store could serve as its avenue for growth. But tvOS apps aren’t just about streaming video—many of the existing frameworks and APIs from iOS are available, meaning developers have virtually no limits to the types of apps they can build for the Apple TV.

It’s not just streaming video—there are virtually no limits to the types of apps that can run on Apple TV.

Games are the obvious example for what makes for logical living room apps, and Apple hasn’t been shy about building tools for game developers. Metal, Apple’s graphics technology that facilitates powerful 3D gaming on iOS and now on the Mac, will power the first tvOS games. The Siri Remote’s motion sensitivity will enable Wii-style swings and swipes. (Apple even developed a wrist strap to prevent the remote from careening across the room.)3

But it’s not even just games—nearly any app that could have a living room component now has the tools necessary to reach their users in that arena. Shopping app Gilt demoed their Apple TV app, which allowed users to browse and purchase clothes and accessories on their cinematic HDTV. Airbnb has already announced a tvOS app for discovering rental destinations and browsing photos in HD.

There’s really no limit to what tvOS apps can do beyond what developers can imagine.

tvOS is bigger than watchOS in that it’s not a simple extension of the existing iOS platform. While developers have certain efficiencies that will allow them to develop universal iOS and tvOS applications, unlike on watchOS, users don’t have to download apps to their iPhone in order to use them on Apple TV. tvOS is a wholly independent platform that can attract users outside of Apple’s existing ecosystem, meaning the market opportunity for Apple TV in the living room isn’t tied to any of Apple’s existing successes.

When Apple debuted the first App Store with iPhone OS 2.0 in 2008, the opportunity for developers was obvious, but its eventual world-changing implications weren’t yet clear. With tvOS, the potential to reinvent how customers entertain themselves in the living room is clear. What remains to be seen is how else the new Apple TV can reshape our homes, and third-party developers are an integral part of that equation.

  1. The “hobby” quote in question was in 2007, pre-dating the first iPad. 

  2. And not just because they’re in violation of Apple’s own tvOS Human Interface Guidelines, which stipulate that app icons not include text unless necessary as part of a logo. But I digress. 

  3. There are still limitations to what games can do on the Apple TV. Apps can only weigh in at 200 megabytes—orders of magnitude smaller than the 20-gigabyte games common on consoles like Xbox One and PlayStation 4—but App Store technologies like on-demand resources could alleviate those concerns.