Why Smart TVs Still Fall Flat
Smart TVs are everywhere. Samsung, Panasonic, Intel and a host of others are trying to reinvent a market struggling to find its footing. But ever since the Google first introduced its TV in 2010, poor feedback and unimpressive sales have hindered progress. It's remained on the market, but they've really only attracted first-adopters and technophiles. TV makers say 2013 is the year the devices go mainstream, pledging souped-up operating systems, apps and displays -- in short, a kickstart to the entire TV market. But the question is: Will smart TVs get them in living rooms?
The Lowdown: Samsung Simplifies Smart TVs, Intel Tries Again
The short answer to that question is: not yet. It's not for a lack of trying, though. Samsung, who already has a series of smart TVs, rolled out a simplified interface, revealed add-on services, including apps, and functions like gestures, voice recognition and recommendations based on past viewing. It also unveiled a giant display, dubbed "UltraHD," a super-sized 110-inch high-resolution LCD that has four times the pixels as a standard 1080p screen. The company also demoed a display that can show two different shows in full-screen at the same time -- with the help of special glasses with built-in headphones to view one show and block the other. Samsung has plenty of juice to power the smart TVs too: quad-core processors make them three times faster than the earlier models.
Not to be outdone, Panasonic's Viera connected-TV line also took a bow. The platform features a customizable home screen -- a marked difference from Samsung's version -- and built-in cameras that can recognize viewers, pull up customized content and let them Skype and video-chat in the living rooms. Panasonic's smart TVs can stream music and video, like Samsung's model, but also edit photos.
Intel also got in the game, announcing a partnership with Comcast to livestream content on any screen in the home without the need of a set-top box. The processors will stream live and on-demand Xfinity programming, on IP set-top boxes and Intel-based PCs, tablets and smartphones, as well as smart TVs. It's not the "virtual cable service" that many hoped for, but it's a start to freeing up cable streaming beyond the living room -- a big step for an industry that's remained staid and reactionary to connected technology.
Not Quite There
The smart TV has more powerful hardware, more features and a palpable sign that cable TV has started to recognize the sea changes in technology. But collectively, connected-TVs have yet to make a case for themselves. Sure, it would be nice to stream two shows on the same screen, and it would be nice to Skype on a TV instead of a laptop screen. But smart TVs have yet to fill a need that tablets and smartphones can't. They're enhancements, not essentials.
"There were good announcements about smart TVs, 4k TVs and other connected devices," said Ichiro Ishiguro, a Hermes analyst. "It sounds like they are doing what they have to do and are progressing as expected, but on the other hand there was nothing much surprising or exciting about the announcement today."
While Samsung, LG, Vizio and others gain the most immediate buzz from these smart TVs, one major name in the business is absent: Google, whose Android platform powers the underlying software. Google has worked hard to make its connected-television software popular among TV makers, ever since 2010, when it first announced its Google TV project. But the TV sets fell flat, stymied by lackluster reviews, poor sales and suspicions from content providers like Hulu, Fox and major networks like ABC, NBC and CBS, which blocked the services from accessing their content.
Since then, Google has worked quietly, but steadily, to improve its platform. It has expanded the service to Europe and Canada, boosted access to apps, allowed TV browsers to connect to its Play service and beefed up social features. It has also forged relationship with powerful content providers. For example, Dish TV lets subscribers watch its channels via Google TV, and Netflix, HBO Go and Amazon Video on Demand customers can use services through Google's smart TVs. Samsung and Panasonic created their own platforms, but Google will still power plenty of others. But even as Google gains steam in a revitalized market, rivals are gearing up to compete. Apple plans to launch a user-friendly version of Apple TV that will revolutionize the nascent market. The company has been in negotiations with cable and broadcast networks, but talks are proving difficult, with the content providers taking a highly protective stance in online and digital industries.
One of the biggest disappointments came from Intel, a former-Google TV partner. Since later versions of Android use ARM chips, Intel is going it alone -- partnering directly with Comcast and working on a "virtual cable service." It even assembled a crack team of industry veterans to help negotiate content agreements.
The ability to offer smaller, cheaper bundles of cable -- or a la carte channels outside traditional packages -- has eluded heavyweights like Apple and Microsoft, making it the Holy Grail of Internet TV. As it stands, Comcast's agreement to livestream channels without the need for a box is a tiny incremental step, but in a fast-paced tech sector, the media industry isn't fast enough to keep pace with innovation. Ultimately, growth in smart TVs is dependent on content -- whether there's anything to watch on these TV sets. Judging from the swift action taken to block Google TV, content providers will continue to prove the biggest hurdle to clear.
Content providers are often indifferent or hostile to technology. For example, legal skirmishes sprouted up when Comcast created tablet apps for subscribers to view channels. The adage "build it and they will come" doesn't apply to media. Instead, it's "build it and hope we can get studios, channels and providers to let customers stream content on it, once we allayed fears of lost revenue, piracy and cheapened digital content."
In the end, the consumer who will judge whether smart TVs take off. Manufacturers, ultimately, need to realize that bringing the smartphone experience into the living room won't be enough. Gestures, voice and face recognition and other "gee whiz" features can make it interesting, but Samsung's recommendations engine, as humble as it is, may hold the key to creating a genuinely customized experience, making it seamless to discover shows as well as remember and store old favorites.
Right now, TV makers are doing their best to roll out the strongest products in the hopes of jumpstarting the connected-television market, but in the end, it's once again, wait and see. ♦
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