Apps beat web browser, will conquer TV next

It's a curious thing why apps have become so popular. iPhone and iPad users tend to prefer using them to using a web browser. And they're becoming so popular that there's speculation that they may eventually take over the TV interface. Remember that Apple at first had no intention of letting programmers create apps for the iPhone. Rather, developers were forced to create "web apps" — iPhone-sized websites that had the same sorts of discrete functions as do today's apps. And the conventional wisdom back in 2007 was that this was the way to go. Appolicious has a fun survey of comments by critics back then saying that apps would die and the web, including web apps, would flourish. Today apps dominate, with over 1 million available for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone.

And now there's speculation that apps may make inroads into the TV interface. An article in the New York Times points out that people simply seem to like their tablet or smartphone interface better. Plus, the article says that people would really like to have all of their cable channels as apps — and to just pay for the ones they use, a la carte style, rather than having to pay for a bundle with scores or hundreds of channels they have no interest in.

There are already apps for Netflix, Hulu, and other services available for the Apple TV settop box, connected TVs, Roku settop boxes, and more. Plus, it's anticipated that if Apple comes out with a TV set, it will make all of the content available as apps.

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So why do we love apps so much? Perhaps for the same reason that the graphical user interface won out over the command-line interface. The desktop metaphor made sense. The icons for applications and files were like things we could see and manipulate. It was simply more intuitive. And as desktop computers got more complex, and further away from this simple intuitive organization, iOS stepped in. Microsoft sees the iPad as underpowered — a not fully functional computer. But happy users see it as a simple, intuitive device that is often simply more convenient than using a full-blown operating system for doing some of their favorite things, such as streaming video or reading books or listening to music. Now Apple is pushing the Mac OS in the direction of the app interface. One reason iOS devices have been so popular has been the ease and simplicity of the interface. Thank you, Steve Jobs.

I have an HDTV but no cable service. Instead, I have both a laptop and an Apple TV connected to it. When I first got my HDTV over a year ago, I began by using a web browser and also the Hulu and Boxee apps for watching Internet content on my TV. But I find that I'm gradually replacing all of that with the use of AirPlay to stream video from my iPad to my TV. For example, I use the Crackle app for watching free movies, and the Ted app for watching presentations by some of the greatest minds of our day, and the NBC Nightly News App for watching the evening news.

Not only does it just seem easier to pick up my iPad, tap an app, and start watching, but also watching via an app can add many additional features. The Nightly News app lets you watch the entire broadcast or watch individual segments. It also gives access to additional video, to a blog by Brian Williams, and other features. 

Plus, if I'm watching something via AirPlay on my TV, I find it's easier to interrupt a program to do something else on my iPad and come back later to continue watching where I left off. My Boxee app on my TV-connected laptop won't let me do that. And if I go out, I can continue watching the program on my iPad.

I'm guessing that this is the wave of the future. Everyone will have smartphones or a tablet, and everyone will use that familiar interface to control and organize the content on their TV. As for me, I'm sold. I love my iPad/HDTV combination. (Of course, you do need an Apple TV or AirPlay-compatible TV or device for AirPlay to work.)

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Jim Karpen holds a Ph.D. in literature and writing, and has a love of gizmos. His doctoral dissertation focused on the revolutionary consequences of digital technologies and anticipated some of the developments taking place in the industry today. Jim has been writing about the Internet and technology since 1994 and has been using Apple's visionary products for decades.