The future of television is an app, apparently. By 2020, nearly half of all viewing will take place outside a legacy pay-television service or a television set. That is the bold prediction from The Diffusion Group in its latest report on The Future of TV — A view from 2013.

Joel Espelien, the author of the report, suggests that the use of “second screens” like smartphones and tablets will pave the way to a full “app” ecosystem, in which users view programming through an app or application dedicated to a specific video service.

“During the course of the next seven years, the app ecosystem will extend to the ancillary devices that link television sets to the internet. We’re not talking about a few apps on a smart TV, but full-fledged apps stores like those offered by Google and Apple,” he writes. “Moreover, this shift is inevitable, supported as it is by strong forces of shifting consumer demand, technology evolution, developer interest, and marketing necessity.”

Though inevitable, he argues that the shift will happen gradually, slowed by industry inertia, device replacement cycles, and resistance to change by the legacy television viewing audience. As set-top boxes, game consoles, and smart televisions eventually come to support full-blown third-party video app stores, a substantial portion of TV viewing will transition from today’s linear broadcast model to an application model.

Joel first suggested the concept of the future of television as an app in January 2013. The meme was amplified by Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix, who began its Long-Term View manifesto published some months later by saying: “Over the coming decades and across the world, internet TV will replace linear TV. Apps will replace channels, remote controls will disappear, and screens will proliferate. As internet TV grows from millions to billions, Netflix, HBO, and ESPN are leading the way.”

With more smartphones in the world than there are cars, predicted to soon overtake the number of televisions, it seems likely that there will be major changes in the way we view television and video.

Whether than means the future of television is an app is another matter. While it may seem that things are moving in that direction, we must not forget the vast amount of viewing that is still through traditional television platforms and the decades of habit that scheduled channels have cultivated.

The future of television is less likely to be an app than multiple applications that compete for our attention. That is a challenge to the now legacy model of digital television that is still dominated not so much by scheduled channels as the programme guide that continues to provide the primary user interface.

Yet it seems likely that there will still be service providers that act as guides rather than gatekeepers to television and video experiences, trusted brands that serve as signs of quality, and media franchises that provide comfortable familiarity in a world of apparently endless choice.