Be Happy the New Apple TV Ditches the Web
The next-generation Apple TV will feature many tricks that its predecessors did not: games, a full suite of apps, a touch-sensitive remote, and more. Equally interesting, though, is what it will be lacking. Specifically, the new Apple TV closes off a direct conduit to the Web—and all the annoyances that come with it.
As pointed out late last week by iOS developer Daniel Pasco, tvOS has been stripped of WebKit and UIWebview, two tools that combined allow developers to easily tap into a “webview” for select content, like when you followed a link to this story from within your iPhone’s Twitter app. That will potentially make life harder for the developers who use webviews as shortcuts; the ability to pull in existing elements from the Web to round out your app means you don’t need intimate knowledge of sometimes labyrinthine software developer kits (SDKs).
That’s a more standard practice than you might realize. “Webviews traditionally have been used as an easy way to render complex content, like styled text views with embedded imagery, or magazine-style layouts,” explains Steven Troughton-Smith, founder and CEO of High Caffeine Content and prominent iOS developer. “In this sense, webviews are incredibly common, and whole classes of apps would have to rethink how they display content.”
“You’d be hard-pressed to find a large number of apps that don’t have them,” agrees Forrester Research analyst Michael Facemire. “It’s simply nice to reuse assets on the Web, even if they’re small assets like a log-in screen, or some success or error messaging.”
Having to rethink elements, even the small workarounds, means headaches for developers. Losing the Web also means the loss of a few perks like OAuth authorization, which you encounter every time you use your Facebook account to log into a non-Facebook site. Proponents of openness at all cost may be aghast, since shutting out the Web means the Apple TV’s walled garden won’t even allow the occasional visitor. You can kiss your RSS reader goodbye.
The list of negatives, though, ends right about there. Here’s what you get in return.
No WebKit, No Problem
The Web can be a wonderful place, but it can also be awful, and not even in that 4chan kind of way. Flash ads and CSS farts are bad enough on the desktop or phone; on a television, they’re a full-blown nightmare.
And that’s before you remember that while Apple TV’s tvOS shares plenty of DNA with iOS, the user interactions couldn’t be more different. Instead of tapping and swiping a 4.7-inch display with your fingers, you’re using a remote to control a 55-inch digital tapestry from 10 feet away. It’s like trying to play a banjo with two oven mitts on.
“How would you interact with a webpage rendered in a webview with the Apple TV remote?” asks Adam Grossman, developer of popular iOS weather app Dark Sky. “Including it would cause all sorts of potential problems, I’d imagine.”
Grossman says he has no plans on taking Dark Sky to Apple TV “just yet,” for now focusing instead on Apple Watch and iPhone. He does, though, feel that webviews often aren’t the right answer no matter what the platform. “My opinion is: If you’re making a native app, use the native SDKs,” he says. “Otherwise it’s going to be a crummy experience.”
Remember, too, that there’s more than one flavor of crummy when it comes to app interactions. Banging a remote against your forehead in frustration over an unnavigable UI is one; another is apps that are simply shoddy. You know, like those that already populate the legions of lackluster “smart TV.”
“Website content…would allow developers to take the least-common-denominator approach to bring existing, awful, Web-based ‘smart TV’ apps or sites to tvOS,” says Troughton-Smith. “They could just reuse anything they’ve built already, instead of putting care and attention into creating something appropriate for the platform.”
By discouraging those “least-common-denominator” experiences, Apple can preemptively ensure that the population of its App Store’s TV section comprises dedicated developers, working with the Apple TV specifically in mind. For the user, it’s the difference between mass-produced cafeteria mystery meat and a custom-cut filet.
Developers that do have to put in a little won’t find it quite so onerous as one might think. “It’s semantics,” says Facemire, himself a longtime software developer at IBM. “You have to learn a wee little bit, and there are probably some quality control testing nuances you’d have to consider.” Those restraints might make some apps slower to market, but once they get there, they’ll be best in class because of it.
“For users, this is a great thing,” explains Troughton-Smith, who plans on building apps for tvOS. “At the very least, apps should be faster, more pleasant to use, and crash less (WebKit content uses a lot of RAM and resources).”
Ready to Launch
Even beyond the obvious end user benefits, the simplest explanation for the new Apple TV’s want of Web might simply be that including it would have left too much to chance.
Above and beyond speed and interface and resource concerns, the Web is simply too unpredictable. The new Apple TV is the company’s most high-profile launch—more of a reboot, but still—in years. We’re reportedly a few months away, pending seemingly endless negotiations, from a hallmark live, streaming, over the top TV service. Forgive Apple if it’s a little uptight about with whom it shares its sandbox.
That helps explain why WebKit’s not the only tool that didn’t make the jump from iOS 9 to tvOS. You won’t find iAds on your Apple TV, or push notifications, or MapKit, or HealthKit, or social integrations from Twitter. At least, not yet.
“I think Apple’s figuring out what would make a great first experience for this brand-new platform, to try and show that it has a place,” says Troughton-Smith.
“I think Apple wants to make sure that their next initial offering in this space is incredibly solid, has a great user experience,” Facemire agrees. The more moving parts you start with, the more things can break. If, instead, you begin with a solid foundation and build piece by piece from there, you’ve got a much better chance at success. “If you think about it,” Facemire continues, “when the iPhone first came out, there wasn’t even an App Store.” Besides, if anyone for any reason desperately wants to browse the Web on their television set, they’re just an AirPlay mirroring session away.
So yes, we’ll probably see ads and calorie counts and maps at some point in Apple TV’s future. The Web? Maybe not so much. Not until it’s built not for our keyboards and fingers but for a five-button remote. Not unless it suddenly turns interlinked chaos into order and predictability. When that happens, you might find the Web on your Apple TV. But by then, it’s unlikely you’d recognize it.