Image via samsungtomorrow@flickr

Back in 2012, I thought Anthony Rose nailed it when he said;

"…in the future your TV will be a beautiful but dumb hi-res panel that will play the content it is told to by your smartphone or tablet."

Or at least, he nailed part of it. The TV will, I'm sure, be "beautiful but dumb". And it will play the content it is told by your smartphone or tablet.

But I'm not sure that's telling the whole story, as far as the "future TV" goes.

The point here is that "smart TV" isn't quite what people want. The idea of one box that deals with all of your video "stuff" with a built-in screen is failing. And it shouldn't be a surprise.

There was a time when you would just plug in your antenna and your TV was ready to go. It was a self-contained device.

Then, you would plug your antenna into your video recorder, plug your video recorder into your TV, and you were ready to go. Two boxes (and probably two remote controls), but still quite straightforward.

Today, a typical household might have;

  • TV (well, probably a couple — but ignoring secondary screens for the moment to try to simplify the picture…)
  • TV service (cable/satellite/terrestrial) - probably a separate set-top box (given that over half of the UK pays for subscription TV service.)
  • PVR (eg. Sky+/V+) for recording broadcast TV - two thirds of the UK have one (probably built into the TV set top box, or possibly as a separate VCR-like box — probably not built into the TV.)
  • DVD player/Blu-Ray player for watching pre-recorded films/video.
  • Games console (55% of households) — mainly for playing games, but often used to access online video services.
  • Some sort of dedicated 'Internet video' device (might be an Apple TV, Now TV, Roku etc. Might be a connected PC. Might even be more than one.)

…or some combination of them. (And thats not worrying about whether you've got things like additional speakers attached, or CD players, radio etc.)

The point here is that the "heart" of the living room's entertainment system used to be the TV, but isn't actually the TV set any more. For everything that the people making the screens do to keep new screens interesting (LCD, LED, OLED, Plasma, HD, 3D, 4K, curved screens, bendable screens — and whatever else you can do with a video panel), the role of the TV in getting 'stuff' onto the screen has gradually shifted out of the big box in the living room, and into… something else.

TV Software

Smart TV looked like the big bid to bring it back together again — get the TV connected to the internet, and let the TV's software do its job of delivering all of the Netflix, iPlayer, Lovefilm, 4OD, YouTube and whatever else that you like. Which is fine, if the software helps you build better products…

M.G. Siegler nicely wraps up the state of TV tech companies;

Intel just sold its unreleased television service to Verizon. TiVo just shuttered its hardware business. Google TV flopped. Boxee sold out. Aereo keeps getting sued. Roku keeps trying new things. Netflix keeps spending wildly. Amazon more wildly still. And where on Earth is that Apple television?

What is happening at the moment is this shift towards "ecosystems." A gadget, on its own, isn't terribly interesting unless it gets connected. The thing that I think makes a smartphone 'smart' is the ability to connect things together — whether thats apps that will connect to your email, calendar, web browser (or other applications and services), or connecting your smartphone to various accessories — your computer (with all your photos and music on it), your car stereo, maybe your television…

TVs might be "smart" enough to connect to the internet. But they don't seem "smart" enough to connect to much else.

But thats not the job of the screen. The screen is the thing you look at – not the thing that does clever things.

Beautiful, but dumb.

TV Services

Smartphones didn't really take off until Apple and Google cracked the software side — in that they turned the phones into platforms that 3rd party developers wanted to make software for. Part of this was making the software themselves (for Apple, making iOS and Xcode. For Google, taking Linux, Java, Eclipse and some other bits and pieces and making a platform out of them.) But the other part was putting them in the hands and pockets of enough people to give developers the business incentive to build for them.

I think its pretty clear to anyone now that there is a business is building mobile applications. There are two big markets (iOS and Android), two smaller ones (BlackBerry, Windows Phone), and maybe a few others worth thinking about. (Symbian? WebOS?)

For Smart TV, there isn't anyone "winning" the war for software platforms. In fact, no one is even clear on the hardware platform that the software platforms should be fighting on (is it Smart TVs? Set top boxes? Games consoles? Something else entirely?)

I think one problem here was the decision to go down the "apps" route — that is, have dedicated, preinstalled apps to use when you wanted to watch something from iPlayer/4OD/Netflix/Hulu/etc. As opposed to building around a web browser that could access any online, web-based content, using an established and robust set of standards.

So, for "smart TV" to turn into the next big thing, there's that to get past. Because asking people who are dealing with the web to put websites and apps for every TV platform ahead of the big mobile/tablet platforms is a lot to expect. It is far from clear which ones are important today – let alone which ones have a long-term future.

TV Providers

But, meanwhile, the "actual" TV industry is still all about the TV programmes – the content that people want to watch enough to pay £60 a month for, and will spend an average of 4 hours a day watching.

There is a problem there, in that people don't really want to be paying all that money – because some of it is stuff that they aren't interested in.

But what TV does well is scale. The dozen or so channels that I want to watch aren't the same as the next household – but we get the options, we get the big shows that everyone wants to watch, and the smaller shows that appeal more to our particular interests.

I suspect that what gets largely either forgotten or overlooked by the tech world is the importance of advertising for TV. Watching how digital advertising works (largely driven by highly measurable 'performance' advertising, bought and targeted based on individual exposures), they either want or expect digital to go the same way. Hyper-targeted, hyper-personalised, and almost completely oblivious to what is happening outside of the web browser.

The thing is, the people who are making the TV programmes we all want to watch are doing a very good job of it. Say what you want about the quality of Eastenders, Big Brother etc. etc. — whether you like something or respect the artistic qualities isn't the same about whether it delivers on its objective of attracting viewers.

It might cater to the lowest common denominator to have mainstream appeal. It might be focussed more on content with things you want to look at than things you want to learn about, or be challenged by.

Everyone watches it together, with all the viewers going along on the same journey that they can talk about with their colleagues at work the next day, or with their friends at the weekend.

Beautiful, but dumb.

TV Challengers

Even if someone (Apple, Google, Samsung, Microsoft, TiVo —who is irrelevant at this point) manages to build the #1 TV platform to develop on, they need to deal with the fact that the people making the content that people want to watch are making it, first and foremost, for the TV industry.

The heavily invested, subscription and ad-funded TV industry.

Asking them to make their content available through other services as well as through broadcast TV is asking them to take away the unique appeal of broadcast TV – what everyone watches together, more or less at the same time. And move it into a completely different on-demand viewing environment.

In other words, asking those who are 'winning' in the TV world to move the competition into a digital world. Where nobody really knows what the rules are (although they will probably be quite different). So nobody knows who the winners are going to be.

To take another media that has undergone a massive transformation as a case study; newspapers just don't work the same in an online environment.

The job of a newspaper – that is, the commercial model that they are built on – is to attract readers to advertising. Pick up the paper for the front page, stick around for the adverts in the Holiday/Finance/Lifestyle section.

When 'newspapers' moved to online, they were forced to unbundle, disaggregate — compete with everyone else reporting the news, at the same time as everyone else selling classified adverts, providing travel services and information, financial advice, sports news, opinions, etc. etc. etc. (Oh - and everything else on the internet.) And they are struggling, forced to reinvent themselves and their businesses to stay afloat.

So why would the TV world want to do the same?