5 Tips about developing for the new Apple TV (tvOS)

We’ve been working on games for the Apple TV for some time and we’ve attended Apple’s tvOS techtalks. Based on these experiences, we’ve learned a few tips that we would like to share with you:

1) The Apple TV is not a giant iPad /iPhone

While there are many similarities between tvOS and iOS at the code level, the user interface is significantly different. For starters, the TV screen is far larger and is viewed at a distant. Apple has spent a considerable amount of time in developing fonts and UI elements that are legible at considerable distance. Furthermore, you only have to concern yourself with a single resolution when developing for tvOS.

Input is through a remote that controls what Apple calls the ‘Focus Engine’. At any one time, one of the elements will be in focus and its size will change so it’s clear to the user which one it is. By swiping, the user can move between the various interface elements. Porting an iOS app that uses multi-touch might require a careful rethink of the way the user interacts with it.

There are also specific features such as ‘Top Shelf’: If the user places your app in the top shelf, you’re allowed to provide content that is visible in the top carousel of the main Apple TV page. This is a great opportunity to increase retention of users. 

2) The TV is often used in a group

A phone or a tablet is a very personal device: It is seldom shared with other people and it’s used up close. This means that the apps are focus on that single user and the interaction is primarily through touch. On the other hand, a TV is usually used by various members of the house, sometimes as part of a group. It’s in a sense a more social device, there is no privacy given that other people can easily see your screen.

When designing for the Apple TV you need to think about ways a group of people can use your app: For example, the famous karaoke app ‘Sing!’ allows a group of people to participate by sharing an iPhone that is used as a microphone. In cases where the app is meant to be used by a single user at a time, an account system might be necessary to differentiate from the various household members that share that common TV.

3) Apple TV apps can be great companions to existing apps (sort of like the watch), further promoting your iOS app.

You don’t need to port your whole iOS app to the Apple TV. In many cases, the  TV might not be the right fit for your app. However, a tvOS app can be a great companion to an existing iOS app. It might also provide a less risky way to get into Apple TV development. A companion app could share media such as images or videos. If it was an exercise app it could share maps or reports.

4) Assume the Apple TV is constantly and reliably connected to the Internet

One of the things that Apple constantly stressed at their conference is that you should assume that the Apple TV is constantly and reliably connected to the Internet. This is important because Apple TV apps are restricted to a binary of just 200MB. Any extra content needs to be on demand.

Furthermore, you can only store 500kb of user data on the NSUserDefaults database. Any larger amount of storage would require the use of iCloud KVS or iCloud CloudKit.

All of this means that if your app contains a significant amount of content, it will have to depend on that reliable internet connection to work properly.

5) The tvOS AppStore is still in its infancy

The Apple TV’s App Store is missing many of the features that we have on both the Mac and iOS App Stores. Chiefly among this is the lack of link that takes the user to your App’s App Store page. This makes it harder to drive installs as well as to track where are users coming from.  On top of that, the user must use the cumbersome remote, selecting one letter at a time, to find your app through the App Store’s search. Because of this, keywords are even more important than on iOS for discovery. To mitigate this issue, the best practise is to explain on your website how to search for your app. A distinctive, yet brief name is helpful in order to reduce the amount of text the user must type.

In spite of the limited features of the App Store, don’t despair just yet. Since it’s original release Apple has added Analytics, App previews and Top lists. At the time of publishing this post, the next release 9.2 is in beta and will allow users to use VoiceOver to dictate text. This is a huge improvement from having to use the remote to select letters to fill in text in places like the search of the Apple TV’s App Store. Finally, it’s worth noting that this is a new platform, and a such there is limited competition, so publishing your app at this stage can increase visibility and hopefully shape the future of the Apple TV.