Big Themes From CES 2012

Nigel Walley – The group of Brits who gathered for the Decipher CES drinks in Las Vegas a few weeks ago were troubled.  We were from the broadcast industry not tech, and most of us had to come back and write up something useful and interesting to justify the trip.  However, we all stared blankly at each other wondering where we were going to conjure a story out of what we had seen.

That is not to say that there weren’t lots of fun and exciting things to see at CES.  It is just that there was no big obvious story to compare with the last three years when we’ve had connected TVs, tablets, 3D TVs etc.  We also weren’t sure how much of what we had seen had any strategic implications for the UK broadcast industry.   After many beers and nachos were able to synthesize our thoughts into the following big themes:

TV is still very exciting – The TV screens that we saw were lovely!  Thinner and shinier than ever.  LG’s 4MM thick 3D screen had to be the winner. Whilst our excitement over these was for very basic ‘shiny toy’ reasons, there is a bigger story. Everyone in TV benefits if consumers are excited by the thing in the corner of the lounge and these were very exciting devices. People buying these will be rushing home to watch TV at the end of every day.

3D is coming along nicely – The displays of passive 3D (as opposed to the expensive ‘active’ 3D that has been sold over  the last few years) were truly impressive  – particularly from LG. These were credible 3D experiences that are moving slowly from top of the range add-on, to being a hygiene factor functionality in most TVs.  It won’t be long till every TV has the capability to show 3D.  Getting rid of the expense ‘active’ screens and their expensive glasses also allowed the glasses manufacturers to get involved. Finally we saw really cool 3D specs from Oakley, and the other sports specs manufacturers.

Super HD – Just as we get our head round HD becoming mainstream, along comes super HD or 4K (due to its using four thousand lines as opposed to the 1080 used by HD).  There comes a point where the human eye is not able to differentiate and we may be nearing it.  However, 4K and 3D combined are part of the broadcast world’s armoury in the growing fight to fend off the moment when TV signals move onto networks.  From a distance, this looks like an arms race, with both the network world and the broadcast world innovating like crazy to make theirs the most TV friendly platform.  In 1995 Nicholas Negroponte coined the phrase ‘Negroponte switch’ in his book Being Digital. This referred to the notion that all broadcast will switch from the air to the cable and data will switch from cables to wireless. 3D and 4K look like an attempt to fend off the day when this actually happens.

The Platform Switch – On the subject of ‘switches’ the current phase of the connected TV revolution is witnessing what could be characterised as a functionality switch between platforms.  Things that until recently only existed as apps on laptops and tablets (YouTube, broadcast players, social media etc) are moving up onto connected screens.  At the same time, we are beginning to see travel in the other direction.  As EPGs and metadata become richer and more complicated, they are beginning to move off the main TV set and onto second screen companion devices.  It is likely that the big revolutions in EPG design and functionality will happen in your smart device, not on your smart screen.  This ‘switch’ just needs a name now – but given my surname I am not anticipating getting any traction by following Nick Negroponte’s example.

The Rise of Smart – The word ‘Smart’ was plastered all over CES with a particular focus on TVs.  Every screen manufacturer had some variation on the Smart TV concept – having moved on from the simple ‘connected’ TVs that characterised the last few years of CES.  Some of them, like LG, had taken it further into their complete SmartHome concept.  The word ‘smart has therefore leapt from our hand and onto the screen in front of us. – and is quickly becoming a standard for this next generation of connected devices. This will have implications for organisations like YouView who are looking to launch new boxes and services into the TV world this year.  To ‘smart’ or not to ‘smart’ is the branding question facing all innovators now?  Even if YouView reject the tag, it is likely that we will see a FreeView Smart at some point – and the difference between Freeview Smart and YouView?  Lord only knows.

Systems Converge – This last area sounds terribly dull but could be the most profound of all the trends identified.  At the moment, anyone wanting to build an app for SmartTV, will probably have to build up to 10 different versions just to get a good distribution across devices and models.   This is clearly a nonsense, and it doesn’t make sense for a  manufacturer like Samsung to use Android for phones and tablets but to develop their own operating systems for TVs.

A presentation on Windows 8 on the Microsoft stand shed the first bit of light on what is probably happening.  Microsoft were demonstrating how their Metro operating system was going to be applied to laptops and tablets.  This is the operating system that is already in place on Windows phones and, since December, the Xbox. With the arrival of Windows 8 for laptops and tablets, Microsoft will complete the set, showing how a consumer can enjoy the benefits of a single operating system  on all of their devices.

This is clearly where Google are going with Android, and where apple are going with the additions of Apple iTV into their range at some point later in the year.  Each of these platform/operating systems comes with a consumer log-in, cloud storage system and ad platform.

There are clearly some bits missing (or late)!  Microsoft doesn’t have a convincing app development environment to match Android or iOS, or a tablet version of Metro launched yet.  Google seems to have 3 of each (am still trying to get my head round the difference between Android 3,  Honeycomb and Android Ice Cream Sandwich).  However, it is all starting to make sense of GoogleTV

Someone from LG explained that GoogleTV is merely a consumer facing ‘proof of concept’ for what should be known as AndroidTV.  It is likely that the main manufacturers who are currently flirting with GoogleTV are actually practicing for what will be a shift to using Android as their TV operating systems.

Once Apple launch Apple iTV later in the year, the building blocks will be in place for a shift to a world where there is only three main operating systems across all screens – Windows, Android and iOS.  Proprietary innovation around operating systems will remain the province of the set top box owner.

The Platform Fightback – One of the strangest installations of CES (apart from the Japanese electronic toilet seats with built in radio) was a selection of screens on the Samsung Smart TV stand.  There was a screen (and a representative) from Comcast, TimeWarner, Verizon and AT&T cable.  They were all demo-ing their platform’s smart TV app.  So this is the equivalent of Sky and Virgin launching smart apps – which apparently they are later in the year.  The big question is why?  Is this the platforms giving up the fight against the device manufacturers and joining the rush to connected TV? Or is it the platforms playing the long game, and co-0pting the connected TVs for their own ends – a form of multi-room strategy on steroids?  We tend to think the later.

Tune in next year!

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