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Sept. 9, 2015, 2:59 p.m.
Mobile & Apps

Apple announces an app platform for Apple TV, potentially big for news outlets investing in video

There’s lots of news video being produced, and a lot of it isn’t reaching big-enough audiences. An open app platform will let digital news publishers play with the big guys.

It’s early September, which means it’s time for a new round of Apple announcements. Today’s round didn’t feature any update on Apple News, which is set to debut this month, but it did feature big news about the Apple TV, which I suspect will become a significant driver of news video views. Here’s what publishers and journalists need to know about today’s announcements — in declining order, based on how important I think they’ll be for news outlets.

A new Apple TV, with an open app platform

“We believe the future of television is apps,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said, and you can understand why the app company would think that. Netflix, HBO Go and Now, Hulu, and others (like on-demand services before them) have trained TV watchers to think of apps as a content source. (Over 60 percent of pay-TV streaming video is consumed on an Apple device, he said.) So the new Apple TV includes a full app store — which means publishers will be able to publish video directly to it.

Apps will be built with the new tvOS, which like watchOS builds on what developers are used to in iOS. (I should note that Apple’s playing catchup to some other platforms here. Basic games like Crossy Road and custom app UIs are already available on devices like the Amazon Fire TV. But the processor power and sophistication and variety of apps are substantially higher here.)

Apple is also pushing Siri’s voice recognition as a search tool, but at launch, it will only search a few content providers (Hulu, HBO, Showtime, Netflix, and its own iTunes). Eddy Cue promised more sources will be added over time, but the phrasing makes me think that’ll be done through business deals rather than opening it up to all apps. That’s a shame, since it’ll likely keep most news publishers out.

Siri was also shown answering basic news and information questions while you watch a show — sports scores and weather. (“How did the Giants do yesterday? What’s the weather in Juneau?”) There was no indication that developers would have access to that sort of in-show interaction, but you can imagine uses for breaking news and other journalistic purposes. But that’s still a ways off.

I’m strange — I actually watch a decent amount of TV news through my Apple TV. Far more than I watch through any other method. I watch Wall Street Journal video through WSJ Live, old news clips through the ABC News app, 60 Minutes segments on CBS News, New York Times and Onion videos through Yahoo Screen, Wired videos through The Stream, highlights and games through WatchESPN and At Bat, and Frontline through PBS. With a 1-year-old at home, I’m up at odd hours, and flipping through news videos helps fill some dead time.

With that context, the new Apple TV — and the platform it will enable — is legit exciting. It will get me to watch a lot more news videos. Given the trouble many publishers have had getting eyeballs to their videos, that’s good news. My question is how unusual my habits are — whether making a very good Netflix/HBO Now/Hulu box and a pretty darned good gaming platform will direct any appreciable attention toward news. (And the related question: whether those positive qualities will be enough to get people buying a $149/$199 box when there are Chromecasts and Rokus and Fire TV Sticks at a third of that price.) Still, if I ran a major media company, this is an area I’d be directing developer resources.

The iPhone 6S and 6S Plus, opening new interface possibilities

How strange is it to have the iPhone — generator of two-thirds of Apple’s revenue — relegated to the final half-hour of a two-hour keynote? Sure, it’s the “S” year, when the outward appearance is left unchanged and many of the upgrades are internal and hard to see. But still!

3D Touch — Apple’s new force-detecting sensors, debuted in the Watch earlier this year — is going to be a UX playground for developers. I can imagine news apps where tapping a headline pulls up the full story, but a quick press-and-hold pulls up a brief news summary, or an options-and-sharing panel, or background or contextual information. The twin pillars of headline-and-story have defined most mobile interactions with news; 3D Touch will push new forms and shapes. People will do great stuff with it, assuming it works well. (I worry a bit about how good a job it’ll do distinguishing between different kinds of presses; my Apple Watch and MacBook Pro are a little less than perfect on that.)

Beyond that, the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus are mostly just more powerful than their predecessors. The camera’s better; the processor is faster. That’ll help lead to even more time we all spend looking at our phones, but that’s more an amplification of existing trends than the start of a new one.

The iPad Pro, soon to be spotted in newsrooms

The iPad — once the driver of publisher dreams — has been in a slow drift downward for a few years: still selling decent numbers, but shrinking a bit each quarter. Plenty of people use their tablets for little more than streaming videos, and for that purpose, there’s no reason to pay Apple’s price premium.

The new iPad Pro, unveiled today, aims to justify that by making the iPad more of a laptop replacement. A larger screen and faster processor allows for easier multitasking and more powerful tools; the new Smart Keyboard aims to make modern information work less of a chore; the Apple Pencil looks like it could be useful for casual note taking. As a result, I suspect the iPad Pro will be appealing to journalists — a higher-polish version of Microsoft’s Surface. (The first piece of content showed off in Phil Schiller’s iPad Pro presentation was an Apple News story from Wired.)

Still, at $799 to $1,079 (plus another $268 for the keyboard and stylus!), I doubt it’ll move units at a significant enough scale to increase tablets’ share of the news audience. It seems like a smart strategy for the iPad to target enterprise customers, but one that probably won’t move publishers’ needles — or stem the shift to smartphones.

The Apple Watch, with faster, more powerful apps

Cook gave a brief update on its newest major product line (though without revealing any sales numbers), while also talking more about watchOS 2, first unveiled a few months ago. The big news with the new OS is allowing native watch apps, which run on the device rather than on the attached iPhone. That should speed up launch times for news apps, which have been rather abysmal. (No one wants to hold their wrist up in Dick Tracy position for 15 seconds while a few headlines load.)

Apple’s Jeff Williams also showed off the new availability third-party “complications” — little info nuggets that appear on the watch face — and highlighted the potential for news companies. (The example given: a CNN headline.) That’ll be good for the few national and global brands that will be able to reach a scale among Apple Watch users worth the bother. For most news organizations, though, active Watch development is still a reasonable skip.

GIFs via @MashableGIF.

POSTED     Sept. 9, 2015, 2:59 p.m.
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