Replacing the Apple Remote App

In my piece from last week, I offhandedly mentioned my theory that Apple was working on something bigger than iOS’s current Remote app. In the piece I described it as “a much larger, all-encompassing Apple TV management app which would do for the Apple TV what the Watch app does for the Apple Watch.” I stand by this idea and thought it was worth elaborating on further.

Now obviously this app wasn’t available alongside the new Apple TV at launch, but I think we could see it released as a new default app within iOS 9.2 or 9.3. This would help spur adoption in users who already own the Apple TV as well as promote the streaming box to those who don’t. This would also fall in line with the way Apple released the Apple Watch app for iOS. But of course, the Apple Watch isn’t a stand-alone device like the Apple TV is — I could certainly see a scenario where Apple decides to release this application through the App Store, for simplicity’s sake.

But what exactly would the application do? For one, it would do exactly what the Remote app did for previous generation Apple TVs — allow you to control the device from your iPhone rather than with the hardware remote. This would give users a fallback in instances where they misplaced their remote and would reprise the ability to type passwords and search terms on the Apple TV through their iPhone’s on-screen keyboard.

Apple could develop the app to mimic the Siri Remote’s full functionality, including making use of the iPhone’s microphone to send commands to your Apple TV with Siri. And this could be one of the reasons why the app’s release is lagging behind the set-top-box — Apple might prefer to use what they’ve learned with the Watch to communicate with the Apple TV over Bluetooth. This might seem like a stretch, but Bluetooth is quite good at transmitting voice and it would avoid the latency that could come from using Wi-Fi. Bluetooth is a one-to-one communication protocol which completely avoids the potential congestion issues that are becoming increasingly common with smartphones, computers, tablets, and streaming boxes all on the same home network.

The other key feature for this theoretical application would be an on-iPhone tvOS App Store. This could open up a new world of possibilities for the device including the ability to share links to Apple TV apps — a feature frequently requested by the Apple-centric media. But from a practical stand point, it would allow users to browse and purchase tvOS apps directly from their iPhone and have them automatically begin downloading on their Apple TV. This is already possible on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One — although, their remote purchasing mechanism lives in a browser — and would be greatly appreciated on Apple’s set-top-box. Imagine finding out about a new app from a friend at dinner. Rather than trying to remember to seek it out when you get home, simply purchase the app on your iPhone at the table and the application would be ready to launch when you get home.

This sort of functionality doesn’t even seem like a difficult feat for Apple. They’ve already embedded an App Store within the Apple Watch app and iOS devices have been able to automatically download newly purchased apps for years. It would just require Apple to dedicate some engineers to the cause. And with their new-found focus on the Apple TV — it’s not just a hobby anymore — I think this feature is coming, it’s just a matter of time.

There’s also a few long-shot features that Apple could implement, such as the ability to manage the Apple TV’s settings from within the app (like the Apple Watch), using Touch ID to authenticate purchases rather than inputing a password (a great feature for parents), or allowing the app to be a general-purpose game controller for games. That last feature is the most exciting to me, it would allow developers to build multiplayer games without needing to develop their own game-specific controller app for the iPhone. But unfortunately, it’s also the least likely to see the light of day — I doubt Apple wants to encourage users to wave their iPhones around for motion control.

In the long-term a replacement for the Remote app is a no-brainer, Jason Snell has already revealed that Apple does not plan on updating the current app to support the new Apple TV. From his piece entitled Nice Box, Bad Unboxing, on Six Colors:

Apple’s big media event back in September, I asked an Apple employee at one of the Apple TV demo stands if there would be an update to the iOS Remote app to support the new Apple TV. I expected him to either hedge, because he didn’t know, or give me a fun tidbit about how since the iPhone has all the same sensors that are in the new remote, the new Remote app can emulate it, plus do fun stuff like provide a keyboard so you can type in all your passwords and stuff.

Instead, this is what he said: “No.”

I’m also not the only one to have floated this theory. Stephen Hackett made mention of this type of application in his review of the Apple TV on 512 Pixels. From the “Apps” section:

In my head, the Apple TV App Store would be right at home inside a revised Remote.app. Users could buy apps there and the Apple TV could install them automatically. Just picture this: Read a review of a new game and decide to check it out? Tap the link, be sent to the TV App Store, tap buy and boom. It would be waiting for you when you got home from work.

I suppose it’s possible that Apple isn’t working on a replacement for the Remote app. They could be so confident in the new Siri Remote that they don’t think it’s necessary to dedicate development time toward it. But I think that would be foolish.

By all accounts the Apple TV is a great device, but that hasn’t stopped users and reviewers from complaining about the nitpicky details. Developing a replacement to the Remote app would eliminate a few of the major complaints in one go — text input, sharing links to applications, and the need for game-specific controller apps (mostly my complaints, but I’m still hopeful). And while folks like myself will happily purchase the new Apple TV and use it regardless of whether or not an iOS Remote app is available for it, in order for many users to get over these pain points, a replacement for the Remote app is a must.

Update 12/5/2015: Removed link to Samantha Bielefeld’s website and replaced it with a link to “my piece from last week” published here, on Initial Charge. Read more about the decision in Moving On.

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