Connecting the Dots: Is ‘Smart’ TV really that smart?


You’ve probably heard the news; how we are all about to plug our TVs into the internet, linking the living room screen to every website and social network on earth until the traditional way of watching television has drained from us like a digital enema. Sounds painful, huh? Certainly, the times they are a-changing, but in the fog of jargon, bluster and bullshit it’s tricky to know your Zeebox from your TiVo, and your video on-demand from your cloud-based streamed media. Where’s Tomorrow’s World when you need it?

As the UK hurtles towards the end of the digital TV switchover later this year (October 24 to be precise when Northern Ireland will switch off analogue signals), most of us can now access a digital TV platform of some flavour, introducing services such as catch-up TV and internet apps to the small but not smallest screen in the home. But question marks remain over how much consumers actually know about connected TV and, possibly more importantly, whether they actually want it.

Let’s get connected…

So what is connected TV? Well, it is essentially any TV set that is hooked up to the internet, either via a dedicated ‘Smart’ TV from the likes of Samsung or Sony; games consoles such as the Xbox 360, Wii and PS3; IPTV platforms such as BT Vision; or connected set top boxes, such as Freeview HD, Freesat HD and some Blu-Ray players. Virgin Media also offers a rich library of on-demand and ‘connected’ services, particularly via its new platform powered by US DVR giant TiVo, but the cable TV provider is typically viewed as a ‘pay-TV service’, rather than connected TV.

To understand how connected is changing TV consumption, it is best to first look at the platform that made video on-demand a household name. At Christmas 2011, BBC iPlayer celebrated its fourth birthday by racking up its biggest ever month, with a record-breaking 187m programme requests across all platforms where it is available, up 29% on the same period in 2010. The service, which offers catch-up on the BBC’s networks, attracted a staggering total of 1.94bn TV and radio programme requests over the whole of 2011. That’s a lot of Pat Butcher and Jeremy Clarkson…

The computer remains the most popular platform to access iPlayer, accounting for two-thirds of all requests, but December 2011 saw a significant spike in people accessing it on mobile devices, tablet computers and connected TVs. Last month, 7m iPlayer programmes were requested on connected TVs, an increase of more than 1000% year-on-year. As the boss of BBC iPlayer, Daniel Danker, succinctly but rather obviously puts it (he himself admits so), “the best place for television is on the television”.

The Smart revolution?



According to data from Ofcom, there were 1m Smart TVs sold in the UK in 2010, but that figure is expected to be up significantly in 2011. Samsung – the world leader in flat panel TV sales – has said that 70% of its TVs sold last year were Smart. Meanwhile, all the talk at the glittering Consumer Electronics Show this month was about new technology to connect the TV to the web, and beyond. Recent research from Futuresource Consulting has suggested that the US and Japan lead the world with connected TV, at 29% penetration, closely followed by Europe with 24%. Futuresource reckons that 80% of global TV shipments will be connected by 2015. So, TV manufacturers are going to ensure you get connected whether you like it or not, but is this just another false dawn like interactive TV in the late 1990s?

In the early days of the ‘Smart revolution’, figures suggested that only 15% of those who bought TVs with an internet connection actually bothered to plug in the Ethernet cable. Samsung now claims that the rate has risen to 75%, and certainly online video services such as BBC iPlayer, LoveFilm and Netflix are proving a ‘slam dunk’ with TV users. Recent advances in cloud remote storage technology are also allowing users to stream videos, music and even games in high quality on their TV without needing sophisticated local hardware. Debate, however, still rages over how much people are embracing the ‘less obvious’ services. Do we want to update our Facebook status on the TV? Do our internet banking in front of the family? Bid for crap we don’t need on eBay?

Some of the early confusion came from TV manufacturers frantically slapping as many stickers on the box as they could, trying to replicate the success of the mobile apps market. We’ve got maps!, We’ve got stocks! We’ve got porno! (OK, maybe not that last one.) But as Jeff Goldblum’s mathematician Dr Ian Malcolm noted in the movie Jurassic Park, these technical minds were so “preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should”. (Yeah, I just quoted Jurassic Park, wannafightaboutit?) Herein lies the rub – there is still no defined way to go about connected TV, and it may take a truly breakthrough service to change this.

Differing views leads to confused viewers



Electronic programme guides (EPG), which provide an interface to channels on digital TV services, may vary slightly in flavour, but they are run on the same principles. Basically, barring a few tweaks and jazzy features, most people can instantly find BBC One if they want it (even my mum, who is the ultimate, and often frustrating test of even the most straightforward technology). But this is not the case for connected TV, where approaches often differ widely between providers. Fiddly interfaces can create the perfect storm for confused viewers, leading to the classic complaint of there being 
’nothing to watch’, even in libraries featuring thousands of hours of on-demand content.

Some companies favour a ‘walled garden’ platform, such as iPlayer, enabling the provider to totally control the ecosystem. Others go for the apps method, like Samsung, in which users can download just the services they want on the TV. Google has proffered a third way with Google TV, software allowing users to browse whatever web content they want on the TV screen. Google TV has been a flop in the US, but the firm has partnered with leading manufacturers for its European expansion this year, which could change the fortunes of what was once described as ‘Android for the TV’.

Go with the grain, do what the viewers do



The stuff techy geeks conjure up in their labs is important, but the future of TV seems to me, at least, more about the psychology of behaviour. It used to be that technology dictated what people could do, but now people have caught up, and they are calling the shots. They want to be able to access the content they want, wherever and whenever they want to watch it. If they haven’t finished watching Downton Abbey on-demand and need to go out, they want to sync it to their iPad, and vice versa. They also want to use social networks to comment and vote on their favourite shows, and have thousands of hours of content effortlessly navigable, even if they don’t actually know what they want to watch. 

But there is no agreed way to do any of those things.

Take social networking – do people prefer having a dedicated Facebook and Twitter app on the TV screen while they watch The X Factor, and then use a QWERTY remote to post messages? Or would they rather use their own smartphone or tablet in a process often referred to as ‘second screening’? It seems that the second approach is more likely, but the smart companies will be the ones that do as much research on actual human behaviour as new technical standards.

All the pieces are there with connected TV, and now it’s just a matter of putting them all together in a way that maximises usability and style. Apple did it before with the MP3 player and the phone, and if speculation is to be believed, the firm could be preparing to do the same trick with the TV. Fervent rumours of a forthcoming, branded Apple connected TV set persist in the tech press, ever since it emerged that Steve Jobs told his biographer, Walter Issacson, before he passed away last October that he had “finally cracked” how to build an integrated TV device. Features including iCloud links and integrated voice assistant Siri have been mooted, although the expected ‘iTV’ branding would hardly please ITV.



The future’s Apple? Maybe, but its definitely social



While we wait for the potential arrival of Apple in connected TV, lots of other companies are already busy introducing services. Only last week, I saw a new TV guide app featuring a TV EPG integrated with real-time Twitter and Facebook feeds, along with some pretty nifty infographics (I can’t say any more as its under embargo, how mysterious of me).

A word here should go to Sky, which has previously taken a rather tentative approach to connected TV, instead favouring big content deals for Premier league football and movies. But the part Murdoch-owned satellite broadcaster recently jumped into the game with a multi-million pound investment in Zeebox, taking a 10% stake in the social TV service developed by ex iPlayer chief Anthony Rose. Zeebox launched on iPad last year, enabling users to search and discover content, gain recommendations, chat using social media, and also access ‘zeetags’ dynamically linked to content on screen, offering web links to information on programmes, actors and even products.

Sky will become the exclusive digital TV partner to Zeebox, integrating the service into its suite of popular mobile apps. In a sense, Zeebox is a blueprint for connected TV – focusing on social features around the dominant behaviour of watching live TV shows, backed up by advanced discovery and interaction options. The platform is not perfect, but it’s a good indicator of what is to come. Its worth noting that Rose set up Zeebox after quitting as chief technology officer of YouView, the much delayed BBC-backed set top box joint venture that aims to bring VOD and web services to Freeview and Freesat. YouView, previously Project Canvas, was initially considered the mass-market game-changer in connected TV, but after the platform was plagued by delays, it seems that the game has already changed.

Conclusions?

Being in the trenches of digital media, as some of us are, it is easy to forget that most people are reading reports from the technology frontlines, trying to figure out the truth amid confusing buzzwords, technical jargon and good old-fashioned bullshit. As a technology and media journalist, I’m as guilty as the next person; but hopefully this article has shone a bit of light on the debate that is cavernous to say the least (we haven’t even discussed monetisation options, which is a different blog entirely).

TV technology is currently in a state similar to the search engine market in the mid 1990s. At that time, numerous providers offered different engines boasting often dizzyingly complex features. But then Google came along and simplified it to a single page featuring a single search box, a format that remains compelling to this day. Will it be Google that brings the same revolution in connected TV? Or will it be Apple? Zeebox? or even YouView? (*cough*) The truth is that we all have our ideas, but no one really knows for sure how TV consumption will change in the future, and that is what makes it all so exciting.

– Andrew

Andrew Laughlin is a media, technology and video games journalist working for Digital Spy.

Follow Andrew on Twitter – @mediascribbles

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