How smart?

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Many TV manufacturers are offering Smart TVs, with a wide range of apps that add extra functionality to the set. There are many Smart TV apps available (Samsung currently offers more than 400) for services such as Catch-up TV, like BBC iPlayer; social network sites like Twitter and Facebook; online movie services like LoveFilm; and video sites like YouTube.

Various Smart TV platforms are available, including, Smart TV (from Samsung), Toshiba Places, LG Smart TV, Philips’ NetTV and Panasonic’s Viera Connect. Sony offers ‘internet-enabled TVs’. And this year, a new Smart TV platform, YouView, is set for launch. So would a single platform help drive the Smart TV market? “History has shown that a single platform will be adopted faster than multiple competing platforms,” says Amit Rullay  UK marketing manager, Philips TV, “the TV industry needs to ensure that the development of Smart TV is focused on providing the best consumer experience and not on technical  standards battles or content land grabs.”

But Darren Petersen, Samsung’s content services manager, Smart TV thinks that, “The different platforms help drive innovation,” adding that the smartphone market is thriving, despite having several competing platforms. However Graham North, commercial director, Humax Electronics, points out that, “The Smart TV space can be confusing to the consumer, which may hold back take-up of this feature.” 

A walled garden or an open road?

Some Smart TV platforms are walled gardens, which limit internet access, while others offer full web browsing. Which one is best for TV viewers?  Edd Uzzell, Sony’s category development manager, says, “Navigating the open Internet via your TV is not yet as good an experience compared with using a laptop, tablet or smartphone, thus an extensively curated service, as offered today, probably offers the best combination of choice, ease of use and access.”

“We’ve found an app structure is the best solution when balancing content with an enjoyable user experience,” says Glenn Zanoni, product marketing manager, TV and Blu-ray at Toshiba, “TVs are used differently from personal devices like phones and laptops – they’re designed for inputting text as conveniently as possible. An open internet platform doesn’t provide a smooth user experience on a TV, whereas apps allow people to find and enjoy the content they want easily.” Graham North adds, “A walled garden means that all available content is presented in a TV-friendly format and the viewing experience is not spoilt. We also have concerns that an open internet service means that unsuitable content could be accessed by young people.”

Samsung’s Smart TVs offer both an app store and a web browser, but Darren Petersen thinks that a walled garden provides the best viewing experience because, “The content has been developed for TV viewing, whereas many web pages don’t look so good on a television screen.” But Amit Rullay say that, “Philips – and our partners: LG, Loewe and Sharp – believe that open standards will attract the most support from content partners, and provide consumers with a greater depth of content and more  localised content.”  But even walled gardens need to be carefully controlled, says Edd Uzzell, “The UK online premium video market is getting more crowded, with new companies, such as Netflix, entering the market. This gives consumers more choice, however, we are not keen on having a huge number of movie stores, all offering the same movie at different price points, and differing levels of quality, as this can make for a confusing user experience.”

A Smart TV is a hybrid television and computer, and the user interface is continually being improved, says Philips’ Amit Rullay, “Our system includes apps for both Apple and Android tablets and phones for controlling the Smart TV functionality. There’s also an option to add a wireless keyboard.” Samsung also markets smartphones and tablets which can use an app for controlling a Samsung Smart TV via a touch-screen interface. “Our 2012 Smart TV range will be easier to navigate, offer more customisation and include a history bar for faster access to your TV content,” says Samsung’s Darren Petersen. Ed Uzzell notes that the Sony Entertainment Network service is available for TVs and Blu-ray players, “So there are plenty of ways to access the service without needing to upgrade your TV on a regular basis,” he says. Samsung also offers access to its Smart TV apps store via its Blu-ray players.

Edd Uzzell says Sony’s Smart TV interfaces are refined and improved yearly based on consumer feedback, while Glenn Zanoni states that Toshiba Places has been designed from research around how TV menu systems are used, “Small icons, like those used on smartphones, can be difficult to see on a TV that is five or six feet away, so we developed large, easy to read icons that are also simple to navigate when using a remote control.”

Future proofing

The Smart TV life cycle is shorter than that for a conventional TV and some customers will worry about how future-proof their set is. There have been instances of a new generation of Smart TVs offering features or apps that are not available on last year’s model. So are consumers right to be concerned that their Smart TV will soon become obsolete? “Smart TV apps and technologies have been subject to the same rapid innovation as other hardware and software over the years. However, we have worked to ensure our Toshiba Places portal gives customers the latest content services regardless of which device they’re using,” says Glenn Zanoni.

The fast progress of new features means that some products are bound to get superseded and not all will run the very latest features, adds Graham North, “this is one key reason that set-top boxes have been favoured as the route to upgrading, as the outlay is far less than that of a new TV.” Philips was one of the first companies to feature internet connectivity on a TV back in 2008, says Amit Rullay, and from the very beginning the company has championed ‘open’ standards. “Progress in this area is so fast that it is impossible to guarantee that all future apps will work on all Smart TVs,” he says, “but it’s our belief that only by adopting open standards can this risk be minimised.”  Samsung says its latest high-end Smart TVs will be upgradable for any new developments in 2013.

Second Screen?

The buzz-word at the moment is Second Screen – using a tablet, smartphone or laptop to interact with others or get additional information from the internet (such as an actor’s biography) while watching a TV programme. Is Second Screen a threat or opportunity for Smart TV manufacturers? Amit Rullay says, “The concept behind the Second Screen is to add to the experience of watching TV on a main set rather than replace it. So we don’t believe it will threaten TV manufacturers. In fact, as part of our Smart TV functionality, Philips has already made apps available for Apple and Android phones and tablets to operate our sets.” Second Screen is a fascinating development for the industry, notes Edd Uzzell, “We make tablets, TVs and apps, so are well positioned to take advantage of it.”

Second Screen is a great opportunity for Humax, claims Graham North, as it offers the ability to deliver more services to the customer, thereby adding new features to their TV product. “The key focus is making the experience of the second screen slick enough to ensure that the sharing of content from one device to another is seamless,” he adds. 

Samsung is also very positive about Second Screen, says Darren Petersen, pointing out that Samsung smartphones and tablets can use a feature called SmartView to watch TV content from a Samsung Smart TV. Glenn Zanoni thinks that, “The trend for using a second device while watching TV is an opportunity for us, and we’ve used it to ensure users are getting the best possible experience across their devices. For example, we have an app that enables users to control their Wi-Fi enabled Toshiba TV from their smartphone.”

YouView

The YouView platform – which is backed by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and 5, as well as BT and Talk Talk – will offer a mix of Freeview, Catch-up TV services, high definition TV and PVR functionality. YouView’s launch has been much delayed, but the company says that it’s happy with current progress, and on track for a spring launch. But some wonder if the delay has hurt YouView’s prospects, although Graham North says that the fragmented Smart TV market presents YouView with a strong opportunity, because, “It’s supported by the main public service broadcasters and will offer a strong range of content in a consumer-friendly way.” Others point out that the Smart TV market is still relatively small, and so there’s plenty of space for a new platform.

But will TV manufacturers already offering Smart TV services will want to support YouView? The picture is unclear. Glenn Zanoni says, “YouView is a really interesting concept and we will make decisions around future product development following its market launch.”  But Darren Petersen thinks that YouView is too late, “If it had been launched on time in 2010, it would have been a good success,” he says, “I’m sure YouView will be heavily promoted, but we are focusing on our platform.” Sony is also lukewarm about YouView’s prospects, “Our position is that YouView is a missed opportunity to become ‘the’ platform,” says Edd Uzzell, “we continue to engage with key industry stakeholders, such as the Digital TV Group, to discuss industry standards for connected devices. Ultimately this will be determined by what our customers want.”

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