These ‘Smart’ TVs Appear A Bit ‘Dumb’?

This year Decipher’s  Future Media Research Programme (FMRP), started out looking at the madness that appears to be engulfing the TV world with the arrival of ‘connectedness’ in all its forms.  Building on our reflections from CES in January, we called our Q1 activity ‘A World Gone Crazy’ because the arrival of connected devices, and TVs in particular, seems to have shaken up the traditional media value chain, introduced new players and encouraged others to play out of position.  We therefore started the year, trying to assess the potential impact of connected and Smart TVs on the wider TV market.

First job for our research labs iBurbia Studios was to buy the current crop of ‘smart’ TV screens and review them. One of the things that struck us is that very few of them appeared particularly ‘smart’.  While manufacturers have been slapping the ‘smart’ logo all over their TV screens, most screens on the market are still remarkably ‘dumb’.  It’s clear that just because something is ‘connected’ doesn’t necessarily mean it is ‘smart’.  Some manufacturers, like Samsung, have helpfully pointed out that they sell both ‘connected’ AND ‘smart’ TVs, but that just muddied the water.  So with the help of some consumers, we did an audit to make sense of it.

We got our colleagues at Decipher Media Research (DMR) to ask consumers how they defined the whole idea of ‘smart’ devices and then asked them which of iBurbia’s TVs fitted that description.  The first step was to ask them about the features that made their other devices ‘smart’. They came up with a list of criteria which we could then use to review the so-called ‘smart’ TVs on the market.  The list broke down as follows:

App Range – A key criteria of a ‘smart device’ is that there should be a reasonable range of ‘expected’ apps available for it.  By ‘expected’ they meant ‘expected on that particular device’.  For ‘smart’ TVs consumers are expecting the key TV related apps they can already get on a smart phone or tablet. They were specifically looking for those from the free-to-air broadcasters (FTAs).  At this point in smart TV evolution it has to be noted that there is no TV screen, available in the UK , which has more that two of the four FTA apps available, and most have just one – iPlayer.  The new ITV Player app is only available on the Samsung 2011/12 devices; Demand Five is only available on Sony; while no 4OD app has migrated from a games console onto a connected screen yet.

App Updates & Additions – On a smart device, consumers also expect to be able to go to an app list or an ‘app store’ and choose new features and functions to load on their device (whether free or pay).  There was an expectation that this list would be continually updated and revised. However, to date this capability only exists on two brands of ‘smart’ TV and in both cases the link is to a proprietary app area. A major hurdle is that none of the manufacturers are using one of the recognised, ‘smart’ operating systems.  In the UK at least, there are no Android, Windows 8/Metro or Apple iOS TV screens on the market**.  Until there is, most of the criteria laid down by our consumers as defining ‘smart’ will unachievable and most content suppliers will find it too complex and costly to develop their apps for all devices.

App Deletion – Correspondingly, consumers expect to be able to remove any apps that they didn’t want, particularly those that were pre-loaded on the device. With the ‘smart’ TVs our consumers were particularly exercised that they couldn’t remove apps designed for other markets – the Major League Baseball app, for instance, was a major annoyance on some brands of supposedly ‘smart’ TV.

Presentation – On a smart device, consumers expect to be able to configure the presentation of the apps and functions to suit their own needs and interests (ie create folders, choose which apps /folders appeared on the front page). Only two screen manufacturers have TVs which offer this capability.

Browsing the web – Consumers expect ‘smart’ devices to have an open web browser and, to be fair, most supposedly ‘smart’ TVs in the 2012 ranges have included one. They are however, let down by the interface and input mechanisms.  Browsing the web with a TV remote control is a poor experience with the current generation of TV browsers and remotes. It is likely that the experience of properly browsing the web via TV will require a fundamentally different interface design, or a dual-screen approach to the remote control to be truly ‘smart’.

Connecting apps – Using their mobile and tablet devices, consumers are increasingly expecting separate apps to connect to each other – jumping from ‘Mail’ to ‘Google Maps’, or from ‘Contacts to Mail’ on a smart phone for instance –  and running more than one at once. This capability has yet to reach TV in any meaningful way, with all apps having to be opened and closed before swapping between functions. The more intelligent broadcasters might also want the ability to launch apps from within broadcast streams or from the EPG.  This would deliver the next generation of interactivity, and move the smart TV experience nearer to that delivered by YouView or Tivo.  However, as we discuss in a following blog, the smart device world seems to be ignoring the idea of integrating broadcast into the smart mix.

Connecting devices  – Consumers are beginning to expect that one ‘smart’ device can easily connect to their other smart devices to synchronise or swap data, content and services.  Most ‘connected’ and ‘smart’ TVs can do this using variants of the DLNA capability, but this tends to be at folder and file level (with ugly DLNA folder based displays) – rather than more intelligently designed functions such as Apple’s ‘Airplay’ and ‘Mirroring’ functions, or the ‘change channel’ function on apps like Zeebox. This capability either requires all devices to be running the same OS (as with the Apple examples) or for the TV screen companies to open up their source code to app developers (as Samsung have with Zeebox).  The failure to do this elegantly within the proprietary TV OS may end up as another driver to the adoption of the main smart operating systems by the TV world.

Conclusions?  Our interest in this ‘World Gone Crazy’ wave of the FMRP research was to evaluate the potential disruptive  impact of ‘smart TVs on the UK market. However, what transpires from the FMRP ‘World Gone Crazy’  research is that most of the connected TV’s sold to date are a long way from delivering against the ‘smart’ branding that has been stuck on them.  Most aren’t yet compelling enough to disrupt anything let alone threaten the pay platforms with an alternative vision of the future.

This will change as the manufacturers gradually improve the product, but it does mean that most statistics on ownership, connectivity and usage of smart TVs in the UK are pretty meaningless.  Poor propositions have been delivering low connectivity rates across the market with less than 50% connectivity not uncommon.   By our reckoning, of the 3M devices sold to date in the UK, only 600k-800k warrant any consideration in a TV market review.  The majority of these appear to be the Samsung devices starting in 2011, and the LG devices starting with the 2012 spec, where the label ‘smart’ can probably be justified and where connectivity rates are nearer 85%.

Nigel Walley


If you would like to see the latest Connected TV products and discuss their implications and the implications of the topics raised above, come to iBurbia Studios as part of Mediatel’s Connected Consumer event on 21st September. Click Here for more info.

* Click here for info on Decipher’s Future Media Programme and the Q1  ‘World Gone Crazy’ research findings

**In the US it is now possible to buy a Samsung, LG or Sony Smart TV running Android (but badged as GoogleTV – see our previous blog on Google TV here)


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