November 2, 2015

An App and an Apple TV

The new Apple TV is here and I love it, but why is managing the device so hard?! Also, @SketchParty is now better than ever!

Last week, something wonderful happened: I was allowed to discuss the Apple TV I have had in my possession for a couple months. I did not use the new Apple TV very much before its official release because of a decided lack of functionality before the App Store opened. However, I did play with the new Siri-aided search, watch a few TV Shows and Movies from the iTunes Store, etc. to get a feel for the interface. All I feel the need to say—especially given that so many others have said it as well—is that the update is what I have been awaiting, identified, if by nothing else, by the fact that I could literally play with the parallax feature—the one that gives the elements on screen a subtle but beautiful depth—all day long. Apple has done some really great things with this update, but it is not all up to what I would call Apple’s normal standards.

Since the launch of the Apple TVs shiny, new App Store last Friday, I have been trying to put my finger on what feels off about it to me and, in a word, it’s management. How the Apple TV apps, passwords, etc. are managed seems to have a lack of the defining ease for which Apple is known in many of the products. And the Apple TV has been around for a long time. Sure, it was discussed as a hobby for much if not all of its existence, which basically gave Apple carte blanche to ignore the device for long periods of time, but there are things that Apple should have learned by now. In addition, Apple is often interviewed as saying that the successes of one product line allows all product lines to benefit, but the Apple TV has not learned from a successful product where management is an equally difficult conundrum: the Apple Watch.

Although strange to think about the Apple Watch when trying to conceptualize what is good and bad about the new Apple TV, the closest analogue is exactly that. The Apple Watch started out mostly as an external display device, needing the iPhone for both data connectivity and—even now—management. Again, management in this case means app installation, home screen arrangement, information entry, etc. With the recent watchOS 2 update, the Apple Watch graduated in some ways to be able to have apps installed and processing done locally, but that management piece is still done on the iPhone and, in my mind, to great effect. While the Apple TV has always stood on its own with apps”, it has largely been relegated to its own external display technology, AirPlay, when apps are not available in direct partnership with Apple. Now, with the introduction of tvOS, Apple has opened up the playing field to developers to submit apps, as on the iOS and Mac App Stores.

Unlike the Apple Watch, however, the management of Apple TV has always been done locally. Such a setup was fine when there were a finite number of apps” installed on the device; users could hide apps” they didn’t want and apps” could be activated on a companion computer, instead of requiring information entry on the hard-to-use, on-screen keyboard. Now, the problems are exacerbated threefold: a basically-infinite number of apps can exist on the device and many of those apps need login-information entry; bluetooth keyboards and the iPhone’s Remote app are not supported (as of now) on the new system, so users must use the on-screen keyboard, which is still not well designed; and there is no easy way to manage apps off of the device in terms of installation, removal, or home screen arrangement. On Twitter, I asked the ether why I couldn’t set up the Apple TV in a similar fashion to the Apple Watch; I still have not heard back.

SketchParty TV

While I wait for the answer, the maker of an app that has been gaming on the Apple TV for awhile gave me the chance to play around with their new Apple TV companion app that was on the store on day one. SketchParty TV started out as an iOS app that let you play what amounts to digital Pictionary by drawing on your iPhone and AirPlaying your sketches to your Apple TV. With the new Apple TV, people can still do just that, but the makers of the wildly-popular app have decided not to rest on their laurels and instead give those with the new Apple TV a better, more seamless way to play the game. Although I never had any problem with the AirPlay method, it always seemed like a barrier to entry. Users with the new Apple TV can install the companion app, which, when launched, looks for the iOS counterpart to start a game. Once connected, the user sets up games just as always. SketchParty and fun gaming apps of its ilk now stand on the same footing as all the other apps” that exist on the older models of Apple TV. In fact, I would put games like SketchParty in the upper echelon of how the Apple TV has always set itself apart: group gaming. While other party games have made the jump to digital in various forms, none have done so with the same level of ease-of-use and credibility as SketchParty. SketchParty is also ideal for the new Apple TV since a finite number of controllers can be used with the new system and only one iPhone or iPad need be used for such a game.

Management woes aside, SketchParty made it onto my Apple TV home screen, while many others that once lived there will be lost to the abyss that is Apple TV App Store discoverability. Check out SketchParty on the iOS App Store here and on the Apple TV App Store, to which—much to my chagrin—I cannot directly link.

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