2 or 3 years ago, every major manufacturer introduced a new TV platform. In the meantime, streaming players have made inroads so it came as a surprise that manufacturers, at CES 2017 in January, reacted so passively to the threat. What will happen to the Smart TV?
A Smart TV future
The first Smart TVs were launched 6-8 years ago, depending on when you start counting. Back then, they took the form of relatively “dumb” TVs with a few features added on top. It is a stretch to characterize these systems as operating systems similar to those employed in the mobile space.
If you will allow us to use the smartphone analogy for just a brief moment, one could talk about the “iPhone turning point” where simple systems get superseded by full-fledged operating systems, driven by software. Has the TV market reached its “iPhone moment”? It is not clear but if it has, it has been achieved by Apple (tvOS) and Google (Android TV) – not the old guard.
What will happen to the Smart TV? CES 2017 did not provide the answers
Because let us be honest here. Samsung’s Tizen and LG’s webOS may pose as open platforms with app stores but they are not. You only have to consider how talks with content distributors are progressing and it becomes clear that manufacturers are controlling who gets in – and who remains out in the cold – with an iron fist. Access is determined by contracts – and money. These are not exactly the open app stores that we know and love from Android and iOS.
Other “platforms” such as Firefox OS in Panasonic’s TVs are not even that. They are simply web overlays wrapped in pretty graphics - and now discontinued.
But first we have to take two steps back to address the question presented in the headline. We asked ourselves the question when we roamed the CES show floors back in January. What will happen to the Smart TV? CES 2017 did not provide the answers. Manufacturers were surprisingly quiet and there was not a single major (good) announcement to be heard.
Mozilla, who was responsible for Firefox OS, has already given up but Panasonic intends to continue development under a new banner. LG had so few new things to announce that it called it a .5 update (webOS 3.5). Samsung refused to even talk about a 3.0 version of the Tizen operating system despite 2.0 being rolled out in 2016 and 1.0 the year prior. The only significant additions to Tizen are some new apps that will be available in the US and select other markets only.
And even more importantly, few existing Smart TVs will be updated with the new features...
Then there is Android TV. Google has persuaded Sony, Philips, TCL, Bang & Olufsen, Nvidia, and others to use its operating system. However, most partners preferred to showcase new products without highlighting Android. Sony barely even mentioned Android TV despite being a launch partner but did confirm to us, when asked, that all current TVs will receive the Nougat 7.0 update.
Symptomatic for the general state of Smart TV was this quite ironic feature by Samsung that we found at CES 2017. The company almost mocked its 2013 platform, which is stuck in 2013 because Samsung refuses to update existing TVs, in an effort to talk up the new stuff. ”Entertainment starts here” – on the “2017 Smart Hub” that is.
Software eats TV
It is perhaps important to emphasize that ”Smart TV” will be included in more TVs than ever before despite a renewed focus on HDR and picture quality in general.
Smart TVs are not dying but there are reasons to believe that the pendulum is swinging from hardware to software. What drives development of products in the electronics industry? We can probably agree that it is a combination of hardware and software but putting the TV market in perspective, it is clear that it has been dominated by manufacturers with core competencies in hardware. Sony, Samsung, LG, Panasonic etc. Most of them have again and again fumbled trying to develop software for TVs, which is why most of them have either found a software partner or acquired a platform. Still, some insist that they have what it takes to create an operating system for TV.
There is where US-based companies such as Google, Microsoft, Apple, and to some extent Amazon, shine. To build an operating system you need the right mindset and perspective. Software created by hardware companies most often end up being garbage, and garbage is being carried into our homes as we speak. We are left with Smart TV “platforms” that receive one or two updates before manufacturers turn their eyes to next year’s line-up. Existing TVs are left to rot - like garbage.
Luckily, if you zoom out and gaze out over the landscape there are signs of change.
Google wants to unite manufacturers under ‘Android TV’ – much like mobile
Apple is using the Apple TV box to lay the foundation for the ‘tvOS’ operating system
Roku often outsells other streaming boxes and ’Roku OS’ is now in 13% of new Smart TV in USA
Amazon’s FireTV platform is implemented in streaming boxes and soon “Fire TVs”
All four companies know how to write and maintain software. They have the potential to attract loyal and growing user bases. All four have thousands of apps (but quality is sometimes lacking) available from the app stores. The products receive regular software updates. TV manufacturers have doomed themselves by not updating previous years’ TVs. Their user bases could have been much bigger.
Countless failed attempts
On the flank, and often forgotten, we have TV broadcasters who feel comfortable only in a world driven by hardware. They have ruled the industry for years by setting up extreme barriers for entry through owned and proprietary networks. They have insisted that you use their (often terrible) set-top box. In the mobile analogy these are “feature phones” built on a closed platform. The internet changes all that, and more. No one owns distribution so no one can control it. The pendulum swings from hardware to software.
It has been proposed that game consoles could be ”trojan horses” into living rooms but all attempts have failed. Closed platforms controlled with an iron fist and very few apps? Not very convincing. Game consoles are built for gaming - for better or worse. They are energy-hungry machines that prioritize GPU over CPU power. Microsoft at one point tried to convince us that HDMI pass-through was the future, and that infrared extenders and IR codes could save us from the fragmented TV landscape. But you do not lay the foundation for a digital future with analog technology.
We were once told that a pact called the ”Smart TV Alliance” would end our miseries and standardize app development. They not only failed to do that; manufacturers who joined the alliance worked tirelessly to undermine compatibility only to get an exclusive app or two. Unfortunately, Philips and Sony are continuing down this path with Android TV.
Others have suggested that the answer is a universal remote that will build a bridge between our many devices but universal remotes work poorly with touch (Apple TV), voice (several platforms), and not least gaming. Universal remotes conform to the lowest common denominator.
Yet others have suggested that the TV gets turned into a ”dumb” receiver and that you control everything from a smartphone or tablet that can push video wirelessly to the TV. That is how I personally started my career as a cable cutter but it failed to satisfy my family’s needs.
Bang & Olufsen have fitted their luxury TVs with a slot that can fit an Apple TV box whereas the actual TVs are based on Android TV. Choice, they say, but customers in this segment often want the opposite. They want an integrated solution.
Apple tells us that ”the future of TV is apps”, which is hardly surprising coming from a company that has been instrumental in making apps a global phenomenon, and has created the largest app market to date with iOS. This may be the most compelling vision for the future of TV presented so far but as long as there is no way to weave content and apps together in a more congruent way, apps on a TV screen feels mostly like silos. There is potential but it will require more than just software to achieve.
In the early years of “Smart TV” we had to endure one gimmick after the other. Gesture controls, voice controls, motion controls, hand waving etc. Someone clearly forgot to say “thanks but no thanks”. Consumers were guinea pigs. We have even seen "mind control" of TVs demonstrated at trade shows. Ideas are not scarce but some manufacturers lack a critical sense. User interfaces on TVs today mostly revolve around left/right/up/down with voice added on top but it is not clear if this combination is a winning one.
The concept of “Smart TV” will likely endure but the form will change. No company that treats a 1 year old product as garbage can ever build the loyalty that is needed to win over consumers. It appears that the pendulum is swinging from hardware to software in development of TVs, and the old guard seems incapable of adapting. TV needs a fresh perspective. “Smart TV” is probably not even the right word to use if you want to understand where TV is headed so perhaps the real question is:
Who will control the TV user interface of the future?