In recent years, an explosion of new apps has forced companies from every sector to rethink the user experience (UX). And now the rise of app-based TV platforms, such as Apple TV, has seemingly shaken up the pay TV industry. But has it really?

As more content is watched on mobiles and tablets, apps would seem to be the clear choice for the multiscreen generation. Seldom has a tech phenomenon moved into the cultural mainstream as fast as the app. But not all industry experts are convinced that apps take pay TV in the right direction. Sascha Prueter, head of Android TV at Google, for instance, who participated on a IBC panel with me last year, actually agreed that video apps are still too compartmentalized. “Apps are not the ideal way to transport content. They create a silo and once you leave that silo to watch other content, you are in another silo,” Prueter said.

Unwanted Disruption

Apps disrupt the experience of channel surfing on television and fragment different types of content. But is this in consumers’ interests? The reason apps work so well on other devices is that they are purpose-built for a particular task. The benefit is that users can go to the app that works best for that task. However watching television is, for most users, not a task - and therefore dividing channels with apps artificially restricts the TV experience. Watching “Game of Thrones” on HBO? You’ll have to leave HBO’s app and find the Showtime app to catch up on “Homeland.” This UX model encourages consumers to stay in just one app, which makes sense from a broadcaster’s perspective but has the potential to take consumers back to an era where they only watch a handful of channels. The danger this presents is that greater choice becomes an illusion that is, in reality, never exercised.

On the other hand, channel surfing on a traditional TV enables the user to lean back and immerse themselves in the experience. And it is this desire for a relaxing, stress-free UX that will define the future of television. Although industry trade shows may indicate a multiscreen app-based world, the average living room is still designed around the traditional TV set. Suddenly, OTT TV providers are learning what pay TV industry has known for years: consumers want a simple unified navigation experience. Apple CEO Tim Cook, who as recently as last year still declared: “The future of television is apps”, is now adding concepts such as single sign-on to Apple’s tvOS service, which make it less a set of apps and more a traditional TV experience again. These updates underscore a simple truth that - whether OTT, IPTV, or any other hybrid form of pay TV – consumers want a design that can effortlessly connect them to the content they love.

A More Intuitive Model

It is not clear how or even whether apps will change the experience of watching television. New approaches to interacting with the TV tend to sit alongside those that already exist. In the near future, we will still use remote controls but more advanced models will offer additional capabilities such as touch-screen and swipe technology. Other user interface functions may be adapted from other areas of technology. The movements and gestures that operate the Nintendo Wii games console, for example, could be integrated into TV search and discovery and some TV manufacturers have done so albeit with varying success. Voice-control is another technology with the potential to “change everything.” Whenever there is a risk of getting overly excited about one singular UX novelty, we should never forget that there is typically a significant disconnect between what we think people do vs. what they actually do when they are sitting in their living room. It is the infamous disconnect between the trade show floor (where people “watch EPG”) vs. the living room (where they watch TV). A similar chasm exists between the mainstream user (browsing a grid or even plainly hitting channel numbers) and the geeky hipster eager to explore the latest UX gimmicks.

The Future of Television

Over the next five years, stress-free discovery and consumption should be the number one priority for the pay TV industry. Currently it is one of its biggest challenges. Although the latest smart TV solutions often promise to make television simple, enjoyable and immersive, these platforms do not always deliver. With so many options, pay TV operators need to focus on the customer now more than ever. And what we have learned from the consumer is that simple search and discovery comes first. The UI has to seamlessly connect consumers to the content that they love. With more competition than ever before, the providers that achieve this put themselves in the best position to win the race.

Ivan Verbesselt is SVP group marketing at Nagra.