Apple TV- Apps on Display

Written by Michael Wass

The new Apple TV has been here for a few months now, and we’re beginning to see the direction of travel for developers and the apps they create. There are already patterns emerging, with brands rushing in to create bespoke Apple TV content, games and apps from the small display cousin devices being ported over and a new raft of content focused apps ranging from curation to a dumping of pre-prepared material.

The Headline differences for Apple TV apps: Focus Engine and App Thinning

While the earliest adopters are likely glad of the compromises that are forced for the sake of simplicity, Apple TV introduces two new considerations to iOS development. While the Apple TV is more than capable of most functionality inherent in the majority of iOS apps, tvOS in particular has some major restrictions or benefits, depending on how you see it.

Focus Engine

The Focus Engine is the primary UI innovation, and it’s development and maturity is what will govern the User Experience of all Apple TV apps. It’s actually quite similar in principle to previous generations of Apple TV hardware and software, except it’s now open to developers.

The big difference between the Apple TV and iPhone or iPad is that on a touch screen device, you interact directly with the content. On Apple TV, you must interact indirectly. The Focus Engine is geared around selecting and highlighting one element of the display at a time; cycling through with the right amount of momentum. This means that how you display and organize information on screen is key to satisfaction and  the stickiness of your users.

App Thinning

Apple TV has some onboard storage, but not a great deal. Given that on iOS some games can be multiple GB in size, the experience on Apple TV is going to be by necessity more simple and constrained.

In theory, Apple TV apps are going to be by nature more media-heavy. Because they’re on a television there may be a more natural expectation for up-to-date, fresh content, with less reliance on pushing wholesale updates. This is good news for teams that iterate in an Agile environment. They’ll be able to toggle features and content on and off, governing via a service rather than relying on the device. The downside to this is obvious- it’s very dependent on internet connection stability and speed.

Developers have had some time to get to grips with the necessities and constraints of app thinning. It’s been available on iOS for a while, but on tvOS it’s a necessity. We’ll have to think our way around this one, because the race to provide the best experience is on.

What’s already out there?

Interestingly, the searchable categories are more limited than on iPhone or iOS. Apple is trying to push a specific kind of content, that fits into easily identifiable groupings. We’re not seeing a great deal of innovation across the board, but some developers are looking to take advantage of the unique capabilities and use cases arising from Apple TVs in living rooms and offices.

A rough look at the app store brings about a split according to the following:


Games account for 90% of revenue from all apps on iOS. They’re very serious business, and the Apple TV is looking to capture the casual gaming market for TV. So far there haven’t been any standout games that have been developed specifically for the TV. It’s mostly still just ported versions of already successful apps, replete with in app purchases for driving revenue. It won’t be long before somebody develops a ‘Doom’ for Apple TV and sets the tone for the first glut of copycats, much the same as Angry Birds did nearly seven (SEVEN!) years ago. This series will not focus on games, but we should be upfront about this- games will be where nearly all the money is made.


Apps for buying stuff are an obvious opportunity on Apple TV, and strangely it’s where we’ve seen most of the innovation so far. QVC are offering live TV apps that allow interaction and purchasing as presenters hawk their wares on screen. It’s crude but it’s strangely cool.

Not On the High Street have a decent little Apple TV app. Businesses which sell interesting, quirky products will see a lot of benefit from having an app that can be browsed as a group. You’re more likely to buy something daft if you and your friends are having a laugh about it together when you’re investigating it.

Commerce is a big one for Apple TV, and I expect that we’re going to see more gamification of purchasing through the touch remote.

Data Display

Apple TVs are going to end up in boardrooms. As Macs and iOS devices win in the personal Enterprise device space, we’re in prime position for people air playing content to displays running Apple TVs, but also for sharing content created through the cloud.

In addition, services which display a lot of information- like Finance, Investment and Budgeting offerings, look rich and interesting on a big TV. Fidelity have an App in the US already, and we’ve seen companies like Server Density take advantage of the huge leap in screen real estate to cram context



Content apps are very straightforward- they’re collections of videos organised by category, usually hooked up to a youtube or social account. These are the laziest way to get an app to Apple TV for brand awareness purposes, but they’re going to have to become more sophisticated very quickly.

Entertainment and Lifestyle apps arguably fit in here too, as most are currently just catalogs of existing content from websites and services.

Content as a category also applies to various on demand services. Most content providers already have their own iOS apps, the smart ones will be tailoring this to the Apple TV experience. Television providers have a great chance to capture a bigger audience by taking advantage of touch and motion controls.

What We Want to See

The next piece in this series will focus on what we could make with the Apple TV. Here at shinobicontrols we have already prototyped a few ideas, and we’ve created a sample app that demonstrates a UI and use case within retail banking. You can watch the video here

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