It's the remote-control revolution.
Telus Corp. is poised to launch an app on Wednesday that will allow its 600,000 home television subscribers to channel surf on Telus's Optik TV service using an iPhone or iPad instead of the remote control, in one of the biggest upgrades since remotes went wireless in the 1980s.
The app's debut is the latest salvo in the battle among the country's television providers, which basically offer the same content to their viewers but are trying to differentiate themselves with apps and supplemental services that make television more interactive.
The market is massive. Convergence Consulting Group estimates Canadians will spend $9.2-billion on television subscriptions in 2012.
But there is a scramble for subscribers. Cable companies lost customers for the first time in a decade last year with a 0.7-per-cent decline. While services such as Netflix were partly to blame for the loss of business, phone companies such as Telus and Bell saw their IPTV subscriber base increase by more than 7 per cent.
Companies such as Telus, Bell Media and Vidéotron Ltée have fibre-optic offerings, which means a user's television operates more like a personal computer than a traditional television.
That's allowing them to deploy a wide array of apps as extras. Some options include watching Facebook feeds beneath the shows they are watching, reading tweets or checking the weather.
"We're trying to do simple things well, and one of the biggest challenges for anyone with a decent TV package is finding something to watch," said David Fuller, chief marketing officer at Telus. The new technology "is something our [cable] competitors can't do without a significant overhaul of their infrastructure."
MTS Allstream Inc. and SaskTel offer their subscribers an app that allows them to sing along with an unlimited supply of karaoke songs.
The karaoke app is developed by Stingray Digital, a Montreal-based company that also delivers the Galaxie music service to Canadian television providers. While cable subscribers get a static screen as they listen to the service, the digital users get album covers and can scroll back to see what other songs have already been played.
"This really brings television into the 21st century," says Stingray chief executive officer Eric Boyko, who was in France Tuesday to accept the Best Entertainment App award for its Karaoke offering at the 2012 International ITV Awards.
The app developers are also able to measure how popular their services are and make tweaks to increase their use, Mr. Boyko said. Thanks to Internet-based televisions, he now knows with certainty that 70 per cent of Canadians use the Galaxie channels on their television for an average of 12 hours a week.
"This is important to us because we can see how it is being used," he said. "And our app is available in countries around the world. We have 60 engineers working in Montreal, and when we do one app, we can use it anywhere. It gives us incredible scale."
While the Telus app allows users to control their televisions from within the home – including changing the channel, setting the PVR and managing the archive of recorded shows – the company also built it to provide viewers with more information than their televisions can provide.
Each show listing has icons that take viewers to pages such as Wikipedia so they can learn more about what they are watching, as well as links that make it easy to share what they are watching with their social networks.
Bell Media, meanwhile, said its emphasis is on providing viewers with apps on its Fibe service that give them useful information that isn't necessarily related to what's on their screen at the moment. It just launched a TSN app that shows sports statistics, for example, and its localized weather app provided by the Weather Network is its most popular.
"We don't think that, on their own, the apps are a real focal point," said Shawn Omstead, vice-president of residential products. "But they can be a real enhancement."
Anyone who has Internet protocol television, or IPTV, instead of traditional cable or satellite service has access to apps. Here are some of the more popular ones.
Facebook and Twitter
While the social media sites are quite different on computers, their television apps are similar. Both offer viewers the ability to see social updates scroll beneath whatever they are watching so they don't miss anything while weatching television.
Cable users can listen to the Galaxie music service too, but IPTV users get a more robust experience that allows them to see album art as well as keep track of the last 10 songs that have played. The company that developed the app, Stingray Digital, also has a karaoke version.
For when the television station isn't enough, the Weather Network's television app is able to tell viewers about what's going on in their neighbourhood at any given time.
Telus subscribers can turn on the television and find an app that reads digital books to their children. The service has 100 books to choose from, and is adding 20 more every three months.
Bell Fibe subscribers can flip to the new TSN app to find out more about the sporting events they see on their televisions. The service doesn't provide any new content, but offers sports fans a way to look up stats without leaving their couch.