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.

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Latest comments (23)

Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters7 years ago
Sometimes it's like Rob reads my mind and writes it all out a lot better than I could. Smart TV just sounds like another 3D to me. Something the tech companies want to push as "the next big thing" while consumers say "meh". If I was already looking for a new TV (which would only happen if my old one broke), I still don't think I'd bother with a Smart TV, unless it was exactly the same price as a high quality dumb TV. My parents still don't even have a 1080p screen, and couldn't care less. And to tech geeks, there's nothing about Smart TVs to make them desirable, when all the functionality they could ever provide is already catered for by something else.
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Simon Tomlinson Programmer 7 years ago
I agree - and the TV manufacturers are not helping themslves here. I just bought a new TV - it happneed to have Smart in it, although I bought it for it's other spces. The Smart element is slow, clunky and quite limited. If they are turning out TVs now which are under-specified, what is that TV going to be like in a few years? I'll be adding in a 50 Android media bos quite soon I think! I really cannot understand why that was not built in from day 1. People may think twice about duplicating the tecj they already have, but if the built in Smart is actually much inferior I think it will prove t be another flash in the pan.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Simon Tomlinson on 4th January 2013 9:25am

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I hate the way they knobbled true internet connectivity on the smart TVs and wanting us to use their proprietary limited apps.
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Show all comments (23)
Rich Sturgess Business Development Director - EMEA, Marmalade7 years ago
Great article yet again, Rob.

And nice work shoe-horning the Gil Scott-Heron song title in there :)
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.7 years ago
Sometimes it's like Rob reads my mind and writes it all out a lot better than I could.
I've noticed that Rob does that a lot.

It's a combination of a little creepy plus the gratification of your own logic and reasoning being replicated in print (as it were).
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I just don't see how such a hypothetical smart TV could ever get the critical mass it needs to become a viable software platform.
With upgrades being bought so infrequently, by the time the install base is there, the sets will be outdated.

I also don't get why the hardware has to be within the TV unit itself. It's stationary, there are no size or weight concerns, you don't carry it around. It would make much more sense for Apple or Google to make a USB-stick pass-through type of device that plugs into a HDMI slot and overlays some kind of UI over the image or runs apps. It could be controlled by voice or via bluetooth through a tablet or phone.
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Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters7 years ago
@Gareth - If you hadn't cut the first bit of the sentence off... I said "to tech geeks". I.e. the people who do have plenty of internet capable devices. Everyone else who isn't a tech enthusiast treats buying a new TV like they do buying a new fridge - if the one you've got still works, why buy a new one?
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Lewis Brown Snr Sourcer/Recruiter, Electronic Arts7 years ago
@Felix I think you have hit the nail on the head that critical mass seems a long way away who is going to develop for a platform which is both small and has a fragmented user base...I agree that its that apple moment described in the article that is needed. Can see it happening but I think we wont see it this year.
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Peter Dwyer Games Designer/Developer 7 years ago
I have a rallying cry for them.

"Wait! You can hack that!"
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Marty Greenwell Software Developer 7 years ago
" It would make much more sense for Apple or Google to make a USB-stick pass-through type of device that plugs into a HDMI slot"

A bit like this:
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Rick Cody PBnGames-Board Member 7 years ago
Smart TVs are on the market. Internet streaming capability is all that's needed. You can interact with TV shows, stream media (including games) and, really, do just about anything else. The apps and marketing just need to become frequent.
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Yann Corno Chief Technical Officer, Days Of Wonder7 years ago
I don't want a smart TV, what I want is a smart audio-video system, i.e. a system in which I don't have to turn on devices one after the other (the TV, the DVD player, the audio amplifier, the PVR, the satellite box, etc.), and use several remotes to tell to each device to what it should talk or listen to. And no, the solution is not a universal remote control with zillions of buttons, even if the Logitech ones do as best a job as can be done.
All devices need to become smarter - not just the TV. HDMI is here.

Oh, and I agree that audio/video engineers need to do a scratch course about user interface and usability, because it's obviously not in their DNA!

Otherwise, it's going to happen the same story as what happened with the iPhone: someone (Apple?) will end up releasing a product that will be at last thought with the end-user in mind - not the product -, and it will blow away all the current industry players. Again, think how Motorala, Nokia and the others were obliterated in less than two years by the iPhone, which was at the time technically inferior than the other products, but simply... usable (and sexy).
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 7 years ago
Smart Tv's are the new 3D tv's except that even less people seem to care. The idea seems practical enough considering I already use a ton of apps on my 360 and PC. But then you have to consider that you can't always interact with apps on your tv and certainly not in the same way you can on your console or PC. 3D tv's are almost completely irrelevent at this point and I wonder if Smart tv's are set to join them in the near future.
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Anthony Gowland Director, Ant Workshop7 years ago
what I want is a smart audio-video system, i.e. a system in which I don't have to turn on devices one after the other (the TV, the DVD player, the audio amplifier, the PVR, the satellite box, etc.)
With HDMI modern kit does this.
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Andrew Goodchild Studying development, Train2Game7 years ago
My parents have just replaced their CRT with a HD TV, and it is a Samsung Smart TV. They only chose that because my sister bought one and recommended it whilst it was heavily discounted. My sister probably will use iPlayer, YouTube and Lovefilm, nothing else. I assume most buyers will be the same, a lot of buyers will buy them purely because Samsung is now the brand to own and many Samsung TVs ma have smart. This will get it into homes, but how many people will never use the features, or eventually learn to use just the apps that relate to TV viewing, like iPlayer or LoveFilm?
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Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters7 years ago
@Gareth, the article was addressing those people that think Smart TVs are going to revolutionise television in the same way the iPhone did for phones. My point is that there won't be people queuing outside stores three days in advance of a new TV coming out like they do for other gadgets. They won't increase sales of TVs because the only people who are going to buy them are those who were looking to buy a TV anyway. And like Rob says in the article, non-techy people are probably more interested in cheap TVs you can buy in the supermarket for hundreds of pounds less.

Also, CRT to LCD was a no-brainer for everyone. It takes up far less space, something even the most technologically illiterate person can appreciate, because you only have to look at it switched off to see the difference.

Yes, some people will buy them, and yes "Smart" functionality will eventually become standard, but are millions of people going to rush out and buy a smart TV this year in the same way people rush to buy the Nexus 7 or iPhone? Probably not.
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Nick Parker Consultant 7 years ago
There will come a time when every TV in the store window will have Internet connectivity. There will come a time when every TV in the store window will be 4k or LED or whatever definition standard or TV tech (dare I mention 3d, the big expectation out of CES 2011?) is prevalent. All those 4K TVs will be connected. It could be that the market for smart TVs will be driven by other evolutions of technology and the connected feature will just become the norm. The average life of a TV used to be 7 years; I don't think that for the main TV in the home, that has shortened much even with LCD and 1080p forcing everybody to up-grade in the last five years. That seven years is coming to an end within the next 3/4 years and by then all TVs will have Internet connectivity regardless of whether that is the primary reason to up-grade.
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Nick Burcombe CEO & Co Founder, Playrise Digital Ltd.7 years ago
I wish the big TV manufacturers would make an agreement on a minimum hardware spec. and put some half decent graphics hardware in these new TV's. If they we had something solid, chesp and widespread to aim at developers could make some cracking games for SmartTV's. Even the A5x or Tegra 3 level of performance would suffice to get it going. But it needs them to agree on some standards. As Mr. Parker said above, the time of interconnect TV's is very close, but without some decent hw acceleration and a bit of storage as standard, its going to continue to be a heavily fragmented market. Maybe someone like Apple will choose to change the television market completely.....I hope so - and they seem fearless on tackling markets that already have dominant players.
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Stephen Woollard Online Infrastructure Specialist, Electronic Arts7 years ago
I suppose this is one revolution that will not be televised.

I'll get me coat.
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Justin Biddle Software Developer 7 years ago
I have a d series Samsung smart tv. Although pretty well done, after the initial play around I have not touched the smart features since.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 7 years ago
All TV's may indeed have internet connectivity at some point, but in areas with zero to terrible high speed internet, these sets will be as useful as a whistle on a plow. Enforced evolution can't serve the masses when those masses in the "minority" ignored by these corporations can't even use a new product for what it's designed for...
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Jeff Wayne Technical Architect 7 years ago
@Justin: I recently bought a new HD TV with Smart TV in it (didn't pay extra for it - it just had it in the base model I got) and had a simiilar experience. Played around with it, found it woefully sluggish and never looked at it again.

In a way, it's a bit of a shame because it could be semi-useful in theory but again as Dr. Chee pointed out, they just go and cripple it with their own flavour of bloatware to make it even less palatable.

Things like this, 3D TV, Windows 8, "always-on" and a variety of other things have me scratching my head wondering if these companies do proper customer and/or product analysis at all.
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Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters7 years ago
What's the motivation for manufacturers to put Smart features in their TVs anyway? Do they make money from, say, Netflix if I use it through the TV? Or is it simply to sell more TVs? Since it won't sell any more TVs than would have been bought anyway, no wonder their offerings are half-arsed. If they were going to make a load of money the more people actually used the features, they'd make those features better. If their money is just made through the sale of the TV, then it seems like "Smart TV" is just a box to tick on the sales pitch.
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