Countless TV manufacturers have jumped on the "smart TV" bandwagon. But aside from trademarks and hype, just what is this product? In simplistic terms, we can define it as a TV connected to the Internet that provides some utility for content retrieval and display. But the similarity between devices ends there, and sets us up for an interesting contemplation of what features and services are available in these devices.
In addition to the term "smart TV," TVs with Internet capability are being variously described as "Internet TV," "Web TV," "connected TV," "NeTVs", or even "interactive television." And while many of these devices provide enhanced services, the common element may simply be a hardware function: the Internet connection. Don’t worry if your TV doesn’t have this capability-you can also get it by buying a Blu-ray player, game console or set-top box from any of various manufacturers or services, like Wii, Playstation, Netflix, Boxee, etc. The purpose, of course, is to bring the Internet-connected PC experience to the living room TV, a realization of the long heralded goal of "convergence" of TV and PC. This time, however, the notion could stick, owing to the maturity of various networking and social phenomena.
The smart TV provides a connection to the Internet and a "browser" of sorts, cleverly dolled up as a TV user interface. Most current products connect the user to a "semi-walled garden," i.e., a set of links to manufacturer-provided content, apps, and a Web browser as well. (Home integration is another option to provide access to user-stored media.) The big differentiator is thus the user interface and the ease of accessing content. From a service provider’s point of view, therein lies the great new frontier-how to provide access to YOUR content over someone else’s.
This brings up the problem of over-the-top (OTT). If you’re getting your TV service from a cable operator, and they’re also supplying you with Internet service, then with a smart TV, you can now view content on your TV that displaces the cable content. In fact, depending on what services you subscribe to, you might even be able to drop some services from your cable lineup, because you can now retrieve them from the Internet. In reality, it’s more complicated than this, because much of that content is NOT available (legally) from the Internet, but there are in fact overlaps.
The TV networks (i.e., the content providers) are not asleep in this area. They don’t want a TV manufacturer to put up a screen that doesn’t give consumers easy access to the network’s content. As a result, NBC Universal, Fox, etc., are collaborating with companies like Netflix to get right back into the (smart) picture. Further muddying the content picture is that each manufacturer has their own preferences for how to categorize and prioritize access (as well as how to provide hooks into services), a fact that has not gone unnoticed by the networks, messing up some potentially lucrative deals (e.g., with Google). So, the fact is, just because you can access the Internet doesn’t mean that it will be an efficient and convenient way to access content.
Market research firm DisplaySearch predicts more than 123M connected-TV products to ship in 2014. Sounds like that has the potential for wreaking some great havoc in the way we access content in the living room. Is there hope for a clearer picture? On the content side, it could be the wild west. On the technical side, perhaps there is hope, but it depends on the medium. Cable and satellite have thus far embarked on proprietary solutions, but these could evolve. In the U.S., the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) is studying implementations of Internet-connected television services and opportunities for broadcast television’s use of Internet-connected ATSC receivers. In Europe, the EBU has adopted "Principles for Internet-Connected and Hybrid Television" that "could deliver lower costs, greater choice and a better viewing experience for consumers." The document, released last month, states that, "Only common solutions will unlock the full potential of hybrid and connected TV and deliver the best possible experience for viewers…"
What’s "hybrid TV," you ask? That’s another story…-agc