Silicon Valley Races to Make TV the Next Frontier for Apps

Thursday, May 28, 2015

After many misfires, Silicon Valley is once again betting it can transform television—this time by letting TVs run apps as diverse as those on smartphones.

Google Inc. and Apple Inc. are urging software developers to show the kind of creativity on the big screen that they have on smartphones. The effort revolves around new set-top boxes and TV sets, which the technology companies are positioning as platforms for all manner of interactive experiences in addition to conventional television programming.

Google’s annual developer conference in San Francisco this week, known as I/O, is expected to showcase the new vision. The event marks a year since the Internet giant released its Android TV operating system, followed by the Nexus Player, a set-top box. TV manufacturers including Sony Corp. and Sharp Co. have adopted Android TV. In March, chip maker Nvidia Corp. announced plans for an Android TV device called Shield, while Razer Inc. started selling its own device in early May.

“Finally the Internet is about to change our TV,” said Jen-Hsun Huang, Nvidia’s chief executive. The living room, he said, is about to be “appified.”

Apple is expected to up the ante on June 8 at its own developer conference, unveiling plans to open its Apple TV set-top box more broadly to app developers. Industry executives say they believe the company is working on an updated Apple TV that would boast a much more powerful processor. The chip would allow Apple TV to run games, potentially challenging game consoles such as Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft Corp. ’s Xbox.

Others expect an array of apps that will help TVs evolve into multifunction command centers for functions like food delivery, videoconferencing, dating, home automation and home security—as well as unexpected app categories that could have surprising effects, like Uber’s impact on transportation.

Silicon Valley has been talking about interactive TV for more than two decades, but the results have fallen short of optimisticexpectations. Some companies already sell devices that put apps on TV screens, mainly to deliver on-demand video, audio, or photos. Roku Inc. says it has more than 2,000 content services for its set-top box.

Technological advances, including faster processors, are fueling hopes that TVs and set-top boxes can do much more. For starters, Nvidia’s Mr. Huang and others say, they can help bring gaming to a broader audience by eliminating the need for dedicated gaming consoles.

Google’s Android TV app store lists big-screen versions of games found on mobile devices, including Electronic Arts Inc. ’s “NBA Jams” and Telltale Inc.’s “Game of Thrones.”

Nvidia, known for chips used to render graphics in high-end PC games, expects its Shield device to run more sophisticated software than the usual set-top box. The company in March demonstrated Shield, whose starting price will be $199, running games such as Id Software’s “Doom 3″ and Crytek’s “Crysis.” It expects more than 50 games to be available for the device when it hits the market. Nvidia is expected to provide more details Thursday.

Many hurdles remain for Silicon Valley’s vision of TV, such as devising a big-screen user interface that consumers find attractive and easy to use, said Brett Sappington, director of research at Parks Associates, which tracks TV-related products.

Not everyone is a fan of Android TV. Samsung Electronics Co. and LG Electronics Inc., two of the largest TV makers, don’t currently use Google’s operating system for their app-capable sets.

Though Android TV has potential, “Google needs to improve the interface,” said Daniel Matte, an analyst at research firm Canalys. He cites other areas for improvement, such as how the apps show up on the display, and said users should have a more intuitive way to view content options.

Google is trying to make Android TV more attractive by adding more TV shows and movies to its Play app store, which will be displayed prominently on the home screens of Android TV displays, according to a person familiar with the matter. The Internet giant also is developing promotions for movies and TV shows to help content providers attract online customers.

In May, Google Play teamed up with “Mad Men” producer Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. on an interactive, multimedia website to celebrate the end of the hit TV series. The site offered the first episode of the show’s first season free of charge for a limited time.

Last week, Sling TV, the Internet TV service run by Dish Network, launched an Android TV app that provides channels including Disney Channel, AMC and ESPN for $20 per month.

Google is trying to keep up with content offerings from Apple, which started delivering a version of the HBO Now streaming service earlier this year via an app for the iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch, or on Apple TVs, iTunes. Apple has also negotiated with programmers to launch an Internet TV service later this year.

Google’s interest in games and other apps is expected to be a major theme at the I/O conference, with 10 sessions focused on either developing apps and games for big screens or adapting them for TVs.

Developer Eric Froemling said Google contacted him in 2014 to make a version of his mobile game ”Bomb Squad” for Android TV, and he got it ready ahead of the platform’s launch at last year’s I/O.

Well over 90% of Bomb Squad users play the game on mobile devices, rather than Android TV, he said. But he hopes new Android TV devices coming this year from Sony and Nvidia will get more people playing games on TVs.

“Hopefully it will become more of a real thing and less of a curiosity,” he said.

Razer has an online portal to help developers make games for its Android TV set-top box, called Forge TV, and it sends them the gadget for testing.

Developers can take an existing Android smartphone app or game and make only small changes, such as adding support for game controllers and tweaking the resolution to fit larger screens, to make them work on Android TV, according to Kevin Sather, Razer’s global director of product marketing.

“The more devices that are out there, the more the developer community will get excited and provide content for this platform,” Mr. Sather said. “We’re expecting to see the number of games grow very quickly.”

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