A vital link

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Televisions are becoming smarter as manufacturers connect them to a variety of online services. Retailers who can guide their customers through this complex landscape and demonstrate what’s available, will be able to take advantage of this new sales opportunity, advises by Ian Calcutt.

Most of the noise concerning new TV features has been devoted to 3D in the last year but a quieter revolution has been happening, which could prove more valuable to consumers in the long term.

TVs are becoming connected like never before, using wired or wireless connections to access online services. These range from photo sharing through Flickr and Picasa to video from YouTube, BBC iPlayer and movies ‘streamed’ on demand to the screen.

Other common features deliver a sort of enriched teletext with customisable weather and news feeds as well as tailored social media apps (applications) by Twitter and Facebook, though some work better on a TV than others. With an added webcam, a few TVs handle Skype video calling, and you can usually play personal music, video and digital photos stored on computer from the comfort of the sofa.

Unchartered territory

While tech-savvy early adopters have been using games consoles or media streaming boxes from IT-orientated firms such as Western Digital and ASUS to distribute digital content around the home in recent years, it’s unfamiliar territory for many consumers and indeed retailers. At the moment this electronic landscape resembles the Wild West, with various companies going their own way and only a few signs of things coalescing into a consistent form.

Add the inevitable tangle over terminology (‘connected TVs’ are also becoming known as ‘smart TVs’, whether hugely sophisticated or not) and the fact that broadcasters and other organisations call it IPTV (internet protocol television) and it’s a recipe for confusion. However, with 90 million TV programmes being accessed through iPlayer in December 2010, people are clearly becoming accustomed to getting content this way.

“The smart TV is going to be a growing trend for a number of years to come,” says Chris Mosley, product manager for AV at Samsung. “How it’s demonstrated in-store will be key to success. Samsung will be investing heavily in this area, and those retailers who adopt the same stance will be the ones who see most success, especially in the early stages.”

The challenge to retailers will be how to demonstrate this new breed of products. According to Fabrice Estornel, Plasma TV product manager at Panasonic UK, “The majority of shops, with the exception of some independents, don’t have internet access for the products displayed. Wi-Fi connection is not easy to implement and wired access points would mean a lot of investment. The best alternative for me would be to dedicate an area of the store where they can demonstrate the best applications on a limited number of connected TVs. We are currently talking to our partners to address this issue. The important thing is to explain what you get and how easy it is to use. The quality of the content provided and functionality of the products is more important than the quantities of apps on a platform.”

Graham North, commercial director at Humax, adds, “For IPTV services to really take off, it’s important that manufacturers, broadcasters, internet service providers and retailers all work together to promote the benefits of on-demand content and, in particular, educate consumers on how they can receive it.”

Fast-changing scene

It’s not just TVs but Blu-ray players, consoles and next-generation digital TV set-top boxes (STBs) that can be a gateway to these features. However, could the rise of internet-ready screens with apps for films and programmes on demand cause the market for standalone devices to dwindle?

“The old rule still applies that several boxes doing a few things each has advantages over one that does many,” says Samsung’s Chris Mosley. “Although the convenience and cosmetic appeal of fewer devices has very obvious advantages too. It’s very likely that apps will take over many of the STB’s functions in the coming years.”

It could be risky to assume an expensive purchase such as a big TV will always handle every possible function. The newest features may only work in the latest models and there are already significant differences between last year’s connected TV products and those announced in 2011.

Darren Petersen, content services manager for Samsung, confirms: “Some applications will only work on 2011 devices due to their ability to handle more sophisticated services. The 2010 platform will continue to receive updates and new apps will be launched throughout the year on both 2010 and 2011 devices. There will be a flood of internet connected TV/AV devices during 2011 and it’s down to each manufacturer to be very clear in their communication which services and applications their devices support.”

It’s a similar situation with Panasonic, as Fabrice Estornel explains: “Unfortunately some of our new applications are not compatible with previous models. This type of technology is constantly changing. You want to make sure that your newest products include the latest improvements and functionality but sometimes it means that you can’t implement them on earlier models. It has always been the case for PC, but now mobile phones or even cars are changing constantly. It doesn’t mean that the previous models stop working. So I think the majority of customers understand the situation.”

Connected home entertainment

LoveFilm currently offers its subscription movie service on various Samsung and Sony products, including the Sony Netbox and PlayStation3. “Connected TVs are certainly becoming an attractive option for home entertainment,” says Simon Morris, chief marketing officer at LoveFilm. “The growing popularity of the technology is clear from the recent announcement that Samsung has hit the two million application downloads mark on its connected TVs. Delivering high-quality content to the consumer’s living room through hardware is something we are constantly striving to achieve, with internet TV being a vital component of these plans.”

The overall connected TV market may also be boosted by the arrival of YouView, due to launch later in 2011 (or 2012 if recent reports are correct). Initially running on a Freeview-based STB, it will bring together catch-up services from the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and 5 and any other provider that wants to join, under a unified electronic programme guide.

As the connected TV universe expands, some features or content may remain exclusive to a handful of devices, rather than the majority. This could make consumers confused or disgruntled if particular services appear on one net-connected product but not the one they own.

The major pay-TV providers, Sky and Virgin Media, already have advanced services in this field (see Products to Watch) and, so far, are unlikely to participate in YouView. Meanwhile, numerous entertainment and hardware companies are behind UltraViolet, a system that enables viewers to play their purchased media across various authorised products.

“People don’t want to buy the same movie in five different formats,” says Fabrice Estornel of Panasonic. “Because of the multitude of formats available for customers, it is becoming an issue with different standards, therefore UltraViolet is a positive move. You need to have a complete ecosystem equipped to make it workable and this will probably take time. Also some companies are still not part of the consortium. Previous attempts at standardisation haven’t been very successful, but let’s hope this works.”

Another approach is that of Acetrax, the on-demand film service that appears on connected TVs b
y Samsung, LG and Panasonic. Once an account is set-up it can be linked to multiple devices. Leslie Golding of Acetrax says, “If a consumer wants to buy their movie on the new Samsung connected TV upstairs, they could buy an Acetrax-compatible BD player from LG or Panasonic and connect it to their older flatscreen TV in the living room to watch the movie.”

In the short term, a limitation may be the UK’s broadband network itself, with rural areas especially suffering from little or no access to fast internet lines. To compensate, some internet service providers (ISPs) restrict high-bandwidth data such as video, particularly at peak times, in a practice known as traffic shaping.

“We have an application that tests your connection before you purchase a movie to make sure that you will be able to stream it without interruption,” says Panasonic’s Fabrice Estornel. “Improvements are needed in the UK and I know that traffic shaping or data management is probably not the answer. There will be more video content – especially HD – being streamed so it won’t get better if nothing is done. We can’t avoid customers calling us if the service is not good enough, so it is a potential issue for end-users being moved between manufacturers and ISP’s call centres. The solution is to improve the infrastructure but obviously the question is who will pay for it.”

Given that leading companies such as BT, TalkTalk, Sky and Virgin Media have both ISP and internet TV operations, it’s likely that the infrastructure will receive the investment that it needs.

Opinion remains divided on whether internet giant Google can succeed with its own venture, Google TV, which launched in the US in late 2010 to mixed reviews. Able to be built into TVs or set-top boxes, Google TV aims to take the search expertise of its creator and apply it to the world of visual entertainment. It uses a wireless keyboard to navigate through a potentially unlimited flow of content.

“I think the danger is to try to build a PC inside a TV,” suggests Fabrice Estornel of Panasonic. “That’s not what customers want as the majority already own a PC.”

Humax supports YouView as an example of how to present this brave new connected-TV world to viewers. “YouView promises to accelerate the penetration of video-on-demand into homes, combining the best of TV with easy-to-access on-demand and internet content,” says Graham North. “The services that will have the most success will be those that offer the best content. This does not mean quantity, but that content has to be worth watching.”

Products to watch

Sky Anytime+ on Sky HD boxes

The satellite pay-TV provider now offers true video-on-demand, currently as a free extra to premium subscribers who also use Sky Broadband. Even with an average connection, downloads are fast and available to begin watching after a few seconds, and the picture quality – while not HD at present – is decent. The line-up includes several hundred films and recent or archive programmes from various Sky channels.

Sony Bravia NX723

Numerous Sony’s TV’s have internet features. The new NX723 series (with 3D and LED backlighting) has integrated Wi-Fi, media sharing from home networks, web browsing, Skype (with optional camera), apps for Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and eBay, video from YouTube, iPlayer, LoveFilm, Sky News and Sony’s Qriocity on-demand movies as well as music on subscription and TrackID for identifying songs through the set.

Humax HD-FOX T2 & HDR-FOX T2

The set-top box specialist recently upgraded its Freeview HD receiver and recorder software to add a TV Portal bringing together catch-up and live streaming from Sky and iPlayer plus YouTube, Flickr, Wikipedia, internet radio and more due later. It has home network media sharing, while the HDR model can send hard disk recordings to other compatible boxes in the home.

Virgin Media TV Powered by TiVo

Arguably the smartest of connected TV devices, this Cisco-built 1-terabtye PVR is being rolled out exclusively on Virgin’s cable TV network and uses TiVo software to help viewers find content from broadcasts, catch-up services or video-on-demand over the box’s dedicated broadband link. It can remember what you like and suggest new programmes, or access a number of apps for social media and online shopping.

Samsung BD-D7500 Blu-ray player

Claimed to be the world’s slimmest Blu-ray disc player at only 28mm high. It has built-in Wi-Fi and features including Samsung Wireless Link and the new One-Foot Connection that syncs wireless devices with a single button-push when placed in close proximity to a supporting product.

Panasonic Viera Connect

Panasonic has renamed its VieraCast internet-TV feature Viera Connect and aims to broaden its line-up of film and TV plus lifestyle and social media apps. The company has also demonstrated a Viera-branded tablet prototype. “The use of extra devices like multimedia remote controllers or tablets linked to the TV will be the ideal solution as you will have two screens to use at the same time with different content displayed but still fully integrated with the TV,” says Panasonic’s Fabrice Estornel.

LG ST600 Smart TV Upgrader

The Smart TV Upgrader box provides access to LG’s Smart platform on any TV with an HDMI input. It has built-in Wi-Fi with access to web-browsing, numerous apps, on-demand content and media sharing over home networks.

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