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Alexandr Degtyarev
Alexandr Degtyarev

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Apps on TVs: how they differ from cell phones

Variety of TVs: from square to smart

Of all the televisions that we connect to interactive television, 40% are devices with a 4:3 square resolution. But their owners are gradually switching to inexpensive Chinese plasmas running on Android - they cost 10-15 thousand rubles and are relatively affordable, so the share of older TVs is narrowing.

Of the remaining 60%, we can distinguish a layer of TVs from the late noughties: these are widescreen screens with a good picture and sound, but they still do not support applications - about 7% of them. The remaining 53% are Smart TVs.

Smart TV is the marketing name for a technology like 4K. The name implies that these televisions can be connected to the Internet, run the smart tv setup, and install apps on them. Within this segment there is a wide "palette" of manufacturers: recently even Xiaomi appeared there. This also includes televisions with Android-based operating systems: either TV or mobile, but adapted for remote control - in both cases you can install something and even play games.

We saw Philips and Toshiba TVs disappear from the market, but they are coming back with a development based on the Opera browser shell. Similar to Google Chrome, which is based on the Chromium engine, it is distributed freely and is used in a lot of different industries.

Basically, the market is divided between Samsung and LG. Each giant has its own operating system - Tizen and WebOS and its own application stores. Next in popularity is Android TV, and Linux-based operating systems round out the top four.

            In the mid-twenties, televisions experienced a boom: we noticed that Russian viewers were turning on the blue screen more and more often compared to the computer. At that point, televisions became more affordable, and there was also an economic crisis. People ran to get a "seventh plasma" in their one-bedroom to save money or sell them later on Avito. Many people still have these devices.

In spite of the loud name, in terms of hardware, Smart TVs are more like slow smartphones - they have little RAM and built-in memory and not the best processing tools. Their peculiarity is that everything is geared to playing video, so the TVs can hardly cope with large pictures, animations and modern interfaces in applications.

Part of the audience that imagines a "smart spaceship" when buying it is disappointed when applications slow down or fail to launch due to poor performance.

But the technology giants do not see the point in putting more advanced "stuffing" in TVs: there is no developed market for games, and users tend to buy consoles - Apple TV, PlayStation or Rostelecom.

The development of the app market is slowed down by the main TV audience, who is quite old and cautious about everything new. If exclusive series or sports broadcasts appear in the apps, it is easier to get used to them. That's why TV retailers often give away promo codes, sending viewers to the apps.

Recent studies show that the adult audience is moving to tablets - on the one hand, they are leaving TV, on the other hand, they are more actively engaged in the applications and transferring this experience.

Developing a TV app: subtleties and limitations

Everything starts with setting business requirements: what we will show, with what minimum set of functions we can start.

Then designers and developers start working simultaneously. Their interaction is critical even when nothing has been done yet, otherwise we will draw interfaces that cannot be implemented.

Applications for televisions are developed completely from scratch, because other devices, smartphones in particular, have a different architecture. The design is also drawn from a clean layout - you can't just take a mobile screen and stretch it across the width of the plasma.

It is not necessary to communicate with the technical support of the TV manufacturers themselves: it is enough to register on their websites for developers - fill in the required fields and confirm with documents who we are. Then we get access to the documentation, which describes the technical requirements, video playback methods or codes for the buttons. It's all in the public domain, but in English.

The main nuance in the development is a different user behavior. On smartphones, everyone is used to flipping, tapping, and swiping. And Smart TV apps are more like websites from the WAP era, the early days of mobile Internet. Navigation on TVs is "down-right-backward. This is why each platform has its own development team: some make apps for iOS, others for TVs.

It is impossible to transplant a developer to make a Smart TV application after Android: different broadcasting mechanisms, code architecture, and control. You can't say that TV apps are the starting point for developers: it's a very peculiar environment, which you can't instantly get into by just yesterday making HTML-based web pages. There's a backend there too, as well as complex code, scripts and interactions with consoles.

The first layout of the main screen was drawn in November 2017

The remote control is the dominant input device on TVs. It is extremely rare to find users who connect a keyboard and mouse. These days, all users have either an aeromouse - a remote control that picks up hand movements in the air - or a standard remote control with four arrow buttons or a joystick. These are used to type queries, phone numbers, or other not-so-large texts into the on-screen keyboard.

With the design is easier: performers can move between commands. But you have to draw practically from scratch: you can inherit the color of the buttons, but it's harder to copy and paste an "alien" element. And my task is to make sure that the products are not scattered from each other in function and appearance. A common design system helps with this: a set of rules and tools for graphic design.

The advantages of a large screen for design are almost nonexistent: TVs tend to have the same resolution as computer displays - just a bigger pixel. Don't expect a big screen to hold a lot of elements and information. And you have to keep in mind that the user is watching TV from three meters away from the screen, so all the information must be readable without a closer approach.

In terms of money transactions, TV development is no different from other platforms. Televisions have their own payment interface, and the device only stores authorization cookies and the status of the app - whether it's running or not. Otherwise, all data goes immediately through a secure payment gateway to the bank - just like on phones.

Previously, the audience had a certain fear of paying for something directly on television: users preferred to take their money to cafes or stores where there were payment terminals. The second option was tying up a phone number and paying directly from the mobile balance, despite the commissions. But all this is becoming a thing of the past, viewers are increasingly turning to banking products and are not shy about sharing their card number.

Process: release in the app store

In 2012, any TV app could be published in a week, but the number of outright "amazing" developments was also high. Now the main manufacturers, Samsung and LG, are making the process of reviewing - the process of checking apps for errors - noticeably more difficult. This situation is the opposite of the mobile market, where Apple and Google are trying to loosen control.

Now it takes about a month before a new app launches, and each update takes up to three weeks. That's a long time, but after three or four reviews you get used to it.

The app build itself is sent for review, as well as a list of popular user scenarios: how to navigate sections, how to pay for content. For the review, we attach the details of a test bank card, which must have enough money on it. In addition to this, we have to specify on which televisions the app should work at all. All the necessary information is included in the presentation.

Next, in the developers console, where we registered, the status changes. There we wait for changes and watch as the card is debited - testers try purchases within the application. A situation is possible: a failure occurs on the bank side, and the application comes back to us with a critical remark - "you can't buy anything". Then we have to go through the procedure all over again.

LG and Samsung testers are extremely negative about any of our edits during the review. And they ask for such a build so that no remote changes can be made at all. But there is a loosening for Samsung: if the application does not work on a particular model, you can send a build with corrections under the group of TVs it is included in.

Errors that testers find are divided into two groups: critical and minor. If there is even one critical one, the application will not be published. These include serious problems: you can't log in, you can't play a video, you can't buy something. Testers will videotape the error itself, and show step by step how they came across it.

Everyone has his or her own testing procedures, depending on what they are capable of. The most exotic case happened to Samsung: they pulled the Internet cable at different stages of the application and got a whole palette of errors. But it's not certain that they'll do the same thing in the next review. We have no way to appeal to their methods, except to write "guys, this is bullshit" in the console.

The most unbearable thing is when new televisions have features that are not described in the documentation. And they can ignore a request for more details, too.

- Where is it in the documentation?

- Well, no.

An example of this peculiarity is the obligatory support of the airmouse on LG devices. If somewhere it doesn't work properly, fixing the error becomes a living hell: you have a claim, but no sample of how it works.

We can't collect all the televisions in a row either, although we imitate the behavior of the Russian buyer - we look at the reviews, the price to quality ratio, and buy popular devices. At the moment our fleet consists of about 25 models, some of which we had to look for on "Avito" because the manufacturer has already withdrawn them from production.

One more nuance: we are not informed in advance about updating the factory firmware. They will quietly install, and our application will stop working on all current models at once.

- What happened? Why isn't it working?

- It shouldn't be, we updated the firmware.

If you visit our testers, you can see how they spend hours driving around the screens with an air mouse, pulling wires or trying to reproduce errors, but for the integrity of the nerves it is better not to break in to them.

Samsung and LG have Russian business representative offices, and LG even has technical support with a test lab. They will still do a review in Korea, but they can take a preliminary look at ours - they are picky guys there, but after their review it's easier at the main stage.

Samsung is rather in "unsubscribe mode": the only way to ask is through the main portal. Perhaps the "tickets" will be answered at some point. With Android there are no such problems - after the first review the release will always take four hours.

This is what communication with Samsung tech support looks like in the console

It is possible to start with minor errors, it is enough to tick the box that we agree to start with them. It is not necessary to correct them, sometimes it is enough to note that the error is on the manufacturer's side. There was a case where a minor error from LG included a missing point in the description of an application.

During the review, they don't look at design: here we have our hands free, and manufacturers don't care what colors we use or what we ask of the user. There are only two hard requirements:

  • Matching resolution, because TV apps don't know how to adapt to screen size.
  • You can't show adult content without warning, and you can't show erotica at all.

They will definitely watch the content, so you should add the testers' IP addresses to the whitelists. They won't watch every movie, but they will run through the sections. Recently they've gotten good at using search and specifically finding movies that are banned by their rules, or making sure that the app asks for the age in time.

Curiously enough, the TV app stores have no rating system at all. There are only stars, but you can't tell anything from them - the stores don't give statistics on the number of viewers who voted.

If the user is not happy at all, he goes to the App Store or Google Play to complain - it is easier to enter a review there, even though it is a different app. It has become a classic that people complain about paid content - they accuse the app on Smart TV of wanting to make a profit and lower our rating on the Apple store.

A cross-platform claim from a user

The most effective way to get feedback remains a personal message on the fields you fill out in your profile - send an email asking you to rate your work, for example.

What awaits televisions next

The model of television content consumption has become bronzed and is unlikely to change in the future. Everyone watches TV either before going to bed or in the background - our set-top boxes sometimes give away statistics that the TV is not turned off for weeks. It's not going to become something big, and it's not going to acquire exotic offshoots.

On the other hand, this segment will become "tastier": people are annoyed by the pirate search for content and walking back and forth with a flash drive, especially if the file does not end up being played. Now it is much easier simply to buy a new film or series directly in the app on the television.

The main changes will concern image quality: 8K TVs will become popular, matrices and backlighting technologies will improve. We cannot say that these are radical changes, but color rendition and detailing will become better. The latest marketing gimmicks are the development of flexible screens and the use of the TV as a wall painting.

A TV picture in a frame. It uses a sensor to adjust its brightness to its surroundings

The hardware in televisions will move rhythmically forward - you'll need a more powerful processor and more RAM for high picture quality.

It is quite possible that televisions will become an organic part of smart homes, but they will not begin to play a central role. It is logical that the speakers have taken over this role - in audio systems, everything revolves around sound quality, which is why voice assistants were born there. On TV, the picture is paramount, but voice commands are there, too - we are already seeing microphones in the new consoles.

But cameras in TVs were already a thing of the past. Five years ago, LG televisions could switch channels with a wave of the hand. The TVs with a camera could understand that there was no one in front of them and turn off, and viewers used cameras to talk on Skype. That remained a toy, just like 3D glasses: it's hard to teach the user new patterns of behavior - the wave of the hands.

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