Smart TV in 2013 - a trickle, not a torrent
Evangelists for Smart TV downplay the bumpy road ahead; this is a revolution that still lacks a rallying cry
If you're a fellow resident of chilly, northern climes, and anything like the majority of the British population, at least, you've probably spent quite a bit of the past few weeks staring at a television screen. In fact, you may even have been using it to watch actual television, as TV networks trotted out endless Christmas specials and made their annual extra-special efforts to put on a selection of films that don't make you reach immediately for your DVD shelves. I wonder, though; how much time did you spend looking at that TV screen, perhaps distracted momentarily from the period thrills of Downton Abbey, and thinking "wouldn't it be great if this played Angry Birds too?"
"Consumers are recognising that television is an absolutely commoditised space. They're walking into their local Wal-Mart or Tesco and buying cheap LCD TVs from no-name manufacturers"
Well, if you spend any time reading the tech press (not that I recommend this as an activity), you might imagine that quite a lot of people are thinking exactly that. 2013, we've been informed rather solemnly by a procession of journalists, pundits, analysts and bloggers, is going to be the Year of Smart TV. Dumb displays are out; this year is the year when televisions are going to follow in the footsteps of their pocket-bound brethren, the smartphones, and become platforms for all manner of intelligent applications and, of course, games.
Those of you with long memories may recall that 2012 was also eagerly heralded as being the year of the Smart TV, but there are far more voices in the heraldic choir this year - and far more companies eagerly setting themselves up to create content for the Smart TV revolution which is, surely, just around the corner.
Except that it's not. I want to give the benefit of the doubt where possible, but none of the arguments I'm seeing about Smart TV actually stack up. Oh, the basic technological capacity is there, of course - strapping a CPU, a GPU, some storage and a Wi-Fi module onto a television is hardly rocket science, given that we're dealing with behemoth devices hundreds of times larger than the average smartphone - but the technological ability to do something doesn't mean it actually makes any sense. Smart TV is possible, and devices equipped for it are trickling into the market, but as countless technology companies over the years have discovered to their cost, "if you build it they will come" is a profoundly dishonest and ill-advised slogan. Smart TV is being built; I've yet to see evidence that anyone will turn up to the party for a long time to come.
It may sound like I'm merely a couple of weeks late with a stunning Grinch performance, but hear me out. The fundamental promise of Smart TV is this - it's going to turn televisions into platforms for apps. Much as with smartphones, the essential core apps will be those which replicate and improve upon existing television functionality - bringing the devices up to speed with the progress that's been made in on-demand viewing and so on elsewhere, and presumably also leapfrogging that progress to a degree. Then there'll be a whole third-party ecosystem of applications and games which can all be accessed and played simply using the television itself.
"This revolution can't just be a trickle; it must be a torrent, or it'll become just yet another button on your TV remote that you never actually press unless you're drunk"
There are variations on the theme - some proponents of Smart TV confess (wisely) that building the processing unit (which will probably need replacing every few years, like a smartphone) into the television (which people don't generally replace more than a couple of times a decade, like, well, a television) isn't actually a particularly great idea, and reckon that the promised future is more likely to come in the form of Apple TV style boxes than in the form of all-in-one devices. Yet the majority, recognising that this won't really be much of a revolution if we're just replacing Microsoft- and Sony-branded console devices with Apple-branded console devices, still believe in the "pure" Smart TV revolution; the monolithic slab that does it all.
The elephant in the room, though, is that we're all waiting with bated breath for the "ah-ha!" moment at which some company turns up and actually lights the fuse on this revolution. Want to know why we keep talking about the fabled "Apple TV" (the fabled television set built by Apple, that is, not the already extant Apple TV box that streams media onto your screen), despite the fact that Apple has given remarkably little indication that it's actually building the thing? It's because Apple utterly turned the mobile phone market on its head in 2007, effectively ushering in the era of the Smartphone and, perhaps more enduringly, the era of the App - and even the most ardent of Smart TV evangelists recognise that a huge, impactful product like the iPhone is exactly what the television market needs to catalyse its prophesied revolution.
What's out there right now - despite the best efforts of Samsung, by far the most active company in this space - just isn't good enough. There are a handful of Samsung Smart TVs; they run apps created for Samsung Smart TVs. Other high-end television companies are dabbling in creating their own Smart TVs, which in many if not all cases will require their own versions of these apps to be created. Interfaces being trialled vary from Samsung's Kinect-style motion sensing suite to variations on the Wiimote concept or the occasional effort at linking up with smartphone apps. Meanwhile, what are consumers doing? Consumers are, smartly, recognising that television is an absolutely commoditised space. They're walking into their local Wal-Mart or Tesco and buying cheap LCD TVs from no-name manufacturers in China and South-East Asia which wouldn't know Smart TV if you served it up on a plate with a sprig of parsley on top. They're getting huge, good-looking, perfectly serviceable televisions for cut-down prices, without a whiff of Smart TV functionality, and fragmenting the market for TVs even further down between aggressively cost-slashing box-shifters.
So at the top end of the market, you've got increasing fragmentation and Balkanisation, none of which is remotely conducive to developers and content providers having a good time (or to consumers giving a damn); at the rapidly growing lower end of the market, you've got dumb screens being sold in increasing numbers at decreasing prices, making it tougher and tougher to sell consumers on the idea that they should spend twice as much on a slightly shinier brand, whether it runs Angry Birds or not.
Faced with this situation, the Smart TV is lying face-down in a stagnant pond unless it has its "iPhone moment". It could be Apple's long-awaited and quite possibly non-existent television set (my guess, by the way, is that Apple will do something in wearable computing before it goes anywhere near the TV market, fraught as it is with the stranglehold of the wickedly anti-competitive US cable networks). It could be something from Google, perhaps even something from Microsoft. It could be Samsung, although none of their plays so far have captured the imagination. It could even be Sony, in about as miraculous an act of corporate resurrection as anyone can imagine. But it has to be somebody. Somebody has to capture the consumer imagination with Smart TV, as iPhone captured the consumer imagination with smartphones. This revolution can't just be a trickle; it must be a torrent, or it'll become just yet another button on your TV remote that you never actually press unless you're drunk, have particularly fat fingers, or both.
"There's lots of talk of casual gamers engaging with Smart TV, but the reality is, when there's downtime in a show they're watching they've already got a screen they're glued to. It's their smartphone"
Why am I so certain of this? Because when I look at the broader picture - the market as a whole, not just the TV side of things - what I see is that smartphones and tablets are eating everyone's lunches. They haven't just disrupted the old mobile phone market; they've hewn a bloody path through a whole lot of different technology markets. Mobile phones. PDAs. Netbooks. Laptops. Compact cameras... Television. Yes, venerable television itself, while eagerly waiting to be reborn as Smart TV, has fallen into a gentle but unmistakeable downward spiral of irrelevance. There's lots of talk of casual gamers engaging with Smart TV, but the reality is, when there's downtime in a show they're watching - an ad break, a slow bit, an entire other show they don't like much - they've already got a screen they're glued to. It's their smartphone screen. Call it a "second screen" all you like; for a lot of consumers, it's the first screen, with TV a distant (literally) second.
Turn on your TV to use an app, dominating the room in the process, or pull your personal device - your phone - from your pocket? There are usage scenarios where the former makes sense, but they're limited compared to the smartphone - and as we all wait for someone to light the Smart TV fuse, smartphones get increasingly good at controlling dumb screens, cutting the legs from underneath the Smart TV concept itself before it even starts running. Meanwhile, for those who actually want a room-dominating game experience, game consoles aren't going anywhere - leaving Smart TV, unless it gets moving fast, sandwiched somewhere in between, trapped in an awkward little niche and riven by squabbling standards and a hugely fragmented, commoditised TV market.
If that sounds familiar, by the way, it's because that's exactly where mobile gaming found itself in the years before the launch of the iPhone. Lacking an ecosystem, lacking customer excitement, lacking any kind of sensible billing method and forced to support a bewildering ecosystem of devices, few of which were any good at all for games, it was an absolute disaster of a sector - with plenty of bright minds trying to make things better, but running up constantly against built-in limitations of the technology and the business model. The iPhone changed that completely - but without the iPhone (or something like it, which would inevitably have come along in the end), mobile gaming would still be a backwater. Smart TV, still lacking its rallying cry, faces the same fate. Its day may come one day down the line - but not this year. In 12 months time, many of those declaring 2013 to be the year of Smart TV will be making the same confident declaration for 2014. The revolution will not be televised; it will, at best, be delayed.