Blown Opportunities for Smarter TVs

By Doug Mohney November 25, 2014

After the rollout of digital TV, the consumer electronics industry had an opportunity to add serious computing power to the device.  But it didn't try hard enough, so now everyone from Amazon to Microsoft is offering an HDMI dongle to turn the $250 to $2500 HDTV into a big screen monitor.  A combination of greed, lack of innovation, and unwillingness to take risk means TV manufacturers are stuck for the next decade trying to make bigger and better displays without adding much more.

Over the past decade, manufacturers started by each adding its own unique, proprietary spin on what a Smart TV should offer.  It typically included a basic user interface, an add-on network connection, and some sort of small strange set of apps available through the company store.  There was no use of Web pages, HTML or open standards because manufacturers believed TV purchasers would not travel beyond a walled garden, leaving them captive and pouring money.

As consumers failed to embrace a walled garden and shell out more money for smarter TVs, manufacturers begrudgingly added dedicated network connectivity rather than forcing people to shell out another $50 to $150 for a connectivity fob. Proprietary interfaces started to shift to open interfaces and operating systems, such as Yahoo! Connected TV, Google TV, Android, with HTML and Javascript incorporated for developers.

Today, there's a mishmash of middleware and fragmentation with no dominant Smart TV platform.  Meanwhile, tablets and smartphones have become the dominant and prevalent devices people use and own. The TV set is now nothing more than an expensive peripheral. Why bother with whatever "Smart" is in the TV when the mobile device provides a better user interface and already is loaded up with the apps and content the user wants?  A touchscreen on a mobile device beats a hundred-button TV remote hands down.

TV unbundling and streaming are only making Smart TV problems worse. Unless the TV incorporates a Google or Microsoft interface (stop laughing, I'll explain in a moment) and is fully synced to the mobile device's set of apps, users are stuck trying to juggle multiple devices and interfaces, so it becomes easier to simply use the TV as an extension (peripheral) to the mobile device.  The cable companies "get" this by providing apps and cloud access to their content, so a customer can start watching a show in the living room and finish it as a mobile experience on the way to work or in a travel setting.  

At this point in time, it's hard to imagine the TV to be the smartest device in the household.  Touch screens on a phone or mobile are more flexible than a stock remote, but the stock remote will retain its usefulness if it stays simple, relying on low power and push buttons to provide a simple experience when searching or data input is not required.  Content has migrated from local storage via TiVo and other DVR solutions into the cloud with service provider-managed DVR, over the top (OTT) on-demand streaming, and subscription-based offerings.

Voice as a user interface is the only value-add that manufactures are embracing for SmartTVs but it isn't clear if it is going to be a must-have feature or just something nice to throw in.

The only opportunity for TVs to evolve to SmartTVs in the future is to bypass all the proprietary schemes and user interface oversimplifications.  Simply treat and build the TV as a regular computing device with broadcast video upfront as the default "app."   It's easy to imagine Google fitting into the scenario, especially with its history of promoting Google TV and Chromecast.

Microsoft could be a more interesting player. It's in a mindset of "cloud first, mobile first," so the Smart TV space would be the ultimate cloud access device. It's already giving away Windows for smaller devices.  Why not take a chance and release Windows to be incorporated into large screen TVs? It would cost Microsoft relatively little and provide another "hook" for getting people onto the company's cloud services platforms.

Edited by Maurice Nagle

Contributing Editor

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