Screenshots of the beta version of the interface for AT&T's streaming box have now been shared online, providing greater insight into the user experience interested consumers can expect once the streaming box arrives to market. What is most revealing in these screenshots is the use of the company's on-demand and live TV service, DIRECTV NOW as the primary driving force behind the experience. Adding further confirmation that although this is an Android TV platform-running device, it will look and feel very different to other Android TV devices. Instead, it will look very AT&T-like. Well, very DIRECTV NOW-like.
The screenshots confirm when the streaming box is turned on it will always default to live TV through DIRECTV NOW. This is an important distinction to make as unlike other compatible devices which provide access to live TV through an app, the whole interface on AT&T's box is built around DIRECTV NOW so you will never launch the company's app in the same way you would have to on other Android TV-powered devices. In spite of this, as this is an Android TV device it does also provide access to the Google Play Store, and by association Android TV apps in general, including ones which technically rival the service offered by DIRECTV NOW. This makes the box very different to the one that's expected to arrive from Comcast as while that too provides access to some third-party apps, it will effectively stop access to apps that offer competing services to what Comcast offers. So while this DIRECTV NOW box is certainly a service provider-branded and driven box, it seems unlikely to be locked down in any noticeable way.
Third-party apps and services aside, the interface, while different to DIRECTV NOW on other platforms, is not drastically different. In fact, it looks a lot more simplified with a stripped down UI that appears to be very similar to that offered via the company's more budget live TV streaming service, WatchTV. This results in a cleaner UI that's for the most part broken down to include a live TV section, another section for content that's available on-demand, and one for content that's been stored in the user's library. Along with the option for the user for find new content either by utilizing keyword searches (likely to also support Google Assistant voice commands), or through the UI's "Discover" tab.
Background: AT&T's streaming box first properly drew attention late last year when FCC filings for the box showed up. These included early pictures of the device, as well as the user manual which provided a little more context – including confirmation the employment of Android TV as the platform in use. Since then, clearer imagery of the finished product has surfaced online when AT&T confirmed (via emails sent out to customers) that it's now in a public beta testing stage.
AT&T has yet to confirm when its streaming box solution will hit the market, although comments by the company during a recent earnings call pointed to an early 2019 release date – specifically, within the first half of the year. This time-frame received further padding by the emails that have been sent out to customers which suggested the beta testing phase would last around six months. So while not confirmed, it is expected AT&T will begin to offer this steaming box towards the end of H1, 2019. Although it stands to reason the product will start to become far more heavily marketed by the company long before this.
Impact: This Android TV device is going to be a different proposition to the ones most Android TV device owners are already familiar with as the emphasize with this box is not on third-party apps, but on the company's own service(s). An aspect which has greatly impacted on the perception of the interface when compared to the more stock-like Android TV interfaces consumers will be more used to. This is technically beta software, and while that does indicate the possibility the UI could change prior to release, it's unlikely to change radically with the same look and user experience showcased in these screenshots to remain in effect. For example, and due to the emphasis on the company's own services, the location and access to other apps is more buried within the interface. Resulting in a design where none of the main or high-profile apps will be within easy reach. Instead users will need to navigate over to the "Apps" tab (which in itself has been distanced from the main DIRECTV NOW elements), and once that page loads the user will be presented with an interface more similar to what is found with existing over-the-counter solutions.
Of course, this type of interface and experience will only feel unusual to those who are coming from the more widely-available Android TV consumer products as AT&T is technically not doing anything that unique here. Over the last year Google has made a bigger push toward catering to operators with Android TV available as a service that operators can use in their own pay-TV set-top boxes. They are still Android TV boxes as the actual mechanics beneath the design are the same, resulting in a design where there's little change in the core elements and features of the platform, but the look can be further customized and tailored to the operator's liking – to appear more of a natural and individual solution.
The familiarity of the interface will therefore likely appeal more to those who are still using cable box solutions and looking to transition to a more modern way of consuming TV and video content. As they will still gain access to the always-expanding Android TV apps and services, but with a live TV-driven interface that's more akin to the top of box they are probably already utilizing from a cable company. Which is pretty much the point here as AT&T is not looking to really take on the third-party box manufacturer market, but instead to offer a product that keeps its own live TV service central to the overall user experience. A goal the company hopes will be more easily achieved by offering a single device that also allows the user to also access content from other third-party apps and services.