Apple was supposed to give third-party developers access to the Apple TV SDK today, enabling them to build apps for the TV platform. That didn’t happen, and for good reason: Apple platforms are a numbers game, and Apple simply doesn’t feel like playing yet.


There were plenty of rumors ahead of today’s WWDC keynote that Apple would announce some kind of update to its Apple TV platform. And while pundits have long been speculating about the launch of a full-blown TV set, the latest round of rumors was centered around a different step: that Apple would open up the Apple TV and give third-party developers access to its SDK, allowing them to build and distribute apps for the device. But none of that happened. Apple TV remains closed, with access to a limited number of partner apps. And there’s a good reason for it.

You see, app platforms are fundamentally a numbers game. Apple CEO Tim Cook made as much clear when he boasted about the latest iOS numbers early on during the keynote, stating that there are now 650,000 iOS apps out there. Out of those, 225,000 have been specifically designed for the iPad – something he contrasted with “just a few hundred” apps for Android tablets.

There are two reasons for this, and one is not quite as obvious. Of course, there are many more iPads out there, making it a much more desirable platform to develop for. But iOS and Android also treat apps fundamentally different. Android apps scale gracefully to bigger screen sizes, making it possible to use many apps that were originally designed for phones on tablets as well. Apple, on the other hand, only offers users the little-loved 2x view of an iPhone app, with results in many cases that are pretty ugly. That’s done on purpose: Developers are forced to build native iPad apps if they want to be used on the tablet. The carrot for this stick is the iPad’s huge user base.

But in the TV space, Apple has a much smaller installed base. Sure, Apple TVs sell pretty well. Cook recently said that the company sold 2.7 million units in six months, which is more than any of its competitors in the smart TV companion box space. But it’s a far cry from the 40.5 million iPads the company sold in 2011. And a smaller device footprint equals less money and opportunities for developers.

This is where we get back to the screen scaling. Google TV has sold far fewer devices than Apple – the latest number suggest that there are less than one million Google TV devices in use. However, the platform is based on Android, so users can still access thousands of Android apps, which gracefully scale up to the big screen. Apple on the other hand would start out with much smaller numbers, and essentially be where Android tablets are today – which is not a place the company wants to be in.

Sure, one could argue that developers would nonetheless jump on the opportunity and build their own apps for the platform, just to be there when it grows up. But for that, Apple would have to give them some guidance and show where it wants to go with Apple TV. Is it an accessory, an Airplay receiver? Or will it evolve into a full-fledged TV platform, complete with its own TV set and access to premium content?

The latest Apple TV UI upgrade didn’t seem to suggest much room for innovation, or even additional apps, for that matter. To become relevant, Apple would have to think big, and not just in terms of screen size. Simply opening up the SDK for the current-generation platform wouldn’t cut it. Apple knows that, and it simply didn’t want to bother with small numbers.

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  1. What exactly are you talking about?

    “Android apps scale gracefully to bigger screen sizes, making it possible to use many apps that were originally designed for phones on tablets as well. Apple on the other hand only offers users the little-loved 2x view of an iPhone app, with in many cases pretty ugly results. That’s done on purpose: Developers are forced to build native iPad apps if they want to be used on the tablet. The carrot for this stick is the iPads huge user base.”

    Screen resolutions for TVs are pretty standard at this point 720p and 1080p. Seems like apple could just add one more resolution and have “Apple TV” apps just like they added iPad apps … I don’t think graceful resolution scaling is the issue here.

    1. That’s precisely what IS being said here.

      “Seems like apple could just add one more resolution and have ‘Apple TV’ apps just like they added iPad apps”

      That’s exactly the point. If Apple added one more resolution and had “Apple TV” apps, this means developers would have to convert their apps to Apple TV apps (the new resolution). Where is the incentive? With such a small user base compared to iPad, developers are going to have a hard time justifying this third medium/resolution.

      In the case of Android and Google TV, developers don’t have to “re-write” to a particular resolution. The whole system was designed to be mostly resolution agnostic. That’s how you end up with so many different screen sizes and resolutions with just phones, then even more when it comes to tablets. What some call “fragmentation” others see as “training developers to write one time in a scalable way that accommodates many.” This isn’t currently the case for iOS apps. Developers are trained to write and rewrite, design and redesign apps for two different devices, rather than writing in an automatically scalable fashion to start.

      It’s a mindset, not so much a matter of technology.

      So, right now, there are tons of Android apps available for Google TV simply because these apps exist for Android phones and Android tablets. Google TV would already beat iOS in the numbers game when it comes to Apple TV unless Apple could re-train the developers of its apps. That’s a heavy task.

      1. The reason Apple does this is to force developers/designers to take advantage of the extra screen real estate during their development / design process. Having a different size screen / resolution, means that the UI should be designed differently. Imagine if iPhone apps just scaled up to the iPad? Better yet, imagine having a desktop application like powerpoint or photoshop being scaled down to the iPhone? Most computer monitors are between 22 – 27 inches… Most TVs however are around twice that size. Developing an app for a 4 inches screen and then having it scale up to over 40 inches, IMHO is just not good design. In addition, I think developing for the AppleTV would be better compared to developing for the Mac (for which there are many developers for), due to the lack of a touch interface on the AppleTV. So an iPad or iPhone developer wouldn’t simply just change the resolution, they would (should) do a complete redesign of the UI, as the way users will interact with said UI would completely change.

  2. Just to be clear here, I would think the larger issue is User Interface … not what is on the screen, but how users interact with the apps. For iPhone and iPad, usage is very similar as it is driven predominantly with finger gestures on the screen. For AppleTV, that won’t work. Now they could add a touch screen to the remote or require an iPad/iPhone interface to the apps (hello mirroring) or they could add something entirely new, Siri? Kinnect like gestures?

    Point is, for these apps to work, developers will need an entirely new UI paradigm and porting apps won’t be trivial because of this.

    Likely Apple doesn’t want to introduce half-baked apps where the interface just doesn’t work and that is why they haven’t opened it up to developers at this point. They don’t want to be locked into the current Right/Left/Up/Down/Back/Forward paradigm that the AppleTV remote requires for current apps.

    1. Will, I think those are some really good points. I also didn’t mean to suggest that it would be challenging for Apple to add a separate resolution for Apple TV apps… it’s just that it would be a separate category of apps, with initially very low numbers. That’s different from the low numbers we are seeing for Android tablets, because Android tablet users can easily make us of Android phone apps as well. Apple would have to start from scratch, and they won’t do that until they’ve got something more solid to offer.

  3. Then there’s the small issue of the 8GB on-board storage present in the current iteration of the AppleTV. I have a 16GB iPad that I routinely have to re-jigger to keep under this limit. You have to have someplace to put these apps, and the AppleTV isn’t it.

    1. I have the new apple tv and 8gb is plenty as its a streaming device. Storage would only become an issue if you were to use it as a dvr. There’s also the issue of the inactive processors. Hmmmmm

  4. I really don’t think Apple is thinking about Android at ALL when they consider opening up Apple TV to app developers. Besides, apps you use on the TV will be very different from apps you use on your phone or iPad.

    1. Bob Bigellow Bob Monday, June 11, 2012

      Why wouldn’t they be thinking about a company that is already in the space they’re thinking of getting into?

      1. Because Android is not a company, Google is.
        Aside from that: I don’t get the “gracefully scaling” thing…have you ever seen an Android phone app on a few Android tablets, let alone a TV screen? There’s nothing “graceful” about it.

  5. Benjamin Lacy Monday, June 11, 2012

    Jail break the apple tv, problem solved.

  6. Ryan Schwebel Monday, June 11, 2012

    TV applications are going to be massively popular in a few years. Someone will develop a voice integrated app for Apple TV that will be as popular as American Idol or Farmville. People will flock to the TV at the same time every week to play it and it will be addictive.

  7. Apple went back to the TV drawing board, after it saw the XBox expansion at E3

    1. Dan,

      Please explain. Because what Xbox showed was so cool, or because it showed the limits of TV apps?

      1. Tom,

        Because SmartGlass just checked Apple, if not quite check-mated it, in the living room. See here: http://pro.gigaom.com/2012/06/microsoft-gets-smart-about-the-digital-living-room/. Apple needs to rethink its next move.

  8. But with “air play” and the iPad or iPhone you have an open AppleTV?

  9. They didn’t open up the Apple TV because it is still “an hobby”. Not enough market penetration (by Apple’s standards), no high-quality interface (not the GUI, but the interaction method), limited content offering, unclear business model, and the likely grain of truth in the rumor mill of a full-blown TV. The current Apple TV will live (and probably die a silent death, in a few years) as “a hobby”.

  10. how about this, Apps on TVs suck. Straight up. That’s why

    1. Yeah, but cell phones apps sucked before Apple took a crack at them.

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