Connected devices become “smart”, but some remain smarter than others

CES is like no trade show I have ever been before, with an estimated 140,000 attendees hitting the show floor in Vegas last week. While such a strong showing can only be good for a CE industry still attempting to wrestle itself from the throes of recession, it made the apparently simple task of getting from ‘a’ to ‘b’ near impossible. A note to PRs: unless you can fix me a briefing with Steve Jobs himself, any meeting requests at the Venetian next year are getting turned down. In fact, in terms of scale, the only thing I can really compare CES to is the Glastonbury Festival ( www.glastonburyfestivals.co.uk/) , where punters routinely have to queue for up to an hour when moving between stages at busy times.

Yet despite the lines, CES gave me a great opportunity to hone in on the state of play with connected TVs and devices; one of the Informa broadband team’s key research area and, if our Intelligence Centre support requests are anything to go by, a favourite topic of our clients’, too:

Connected TVs are growing up: The first thing I quickly learned was that the term connected TV appears to be very old hat, and that these days, it’s all about “Smart TVs”. Sony, Samsung, LG and Intel were among a number of vendors extolling the virtues of how smart their devices or components were. It is a clichéd marketing term, but it’s one they are much more justified to make than when connected TVs first made a splash at CES in 2008 and 2009 (which must surely mean the technology must almost qualify for dinosaur status).

Almost across the board, the devices I tried at the show were quicker and more responsive than previous iterations, the result of them using much more powerful chipsets (or in the case of Google TV, 2 chipsets). User interfaces have now improved too, no longer resembling something akin to a jumped-up version of Teletext (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teletext). And many now support Flash, partly as a result of Adobe’s own Air 2.5 for TVs.

Despite the flack, Google has arrived in the front-room
Google TV has had its fair share of problems and issues, but you would not know it given the extent to which Google and Android both dominated the TV section of the show floor. Vizio showed off its Google TV prototype which is very different to the Logitech and Sony devices, offering a much simpler and more stripped back user interface. Panasonic announced an Android companion tablet for its VieraCast, and it’s not a giant leap of faith to imagine such an extension coming to the TV.

Many of the big TV manufacturers that have not launched Google sets have devices in the lab ready to go, but they still remain uneasy about Google TV. The issue is not just the lack of content, nor the lousy reviews, but a more fundamental fear of betting too much of an unknown quantity. That unknown quantity refers to both Google and Android specifically: one executive I spoke to claimed that his firm was distinctly unimpressed with the upgrade path that Android has taken so far. In the long term, all manufacturers will offer Google or Android sets, but few are likely to do so exclusively, for these reasons.

Most manufacturers are addressing the content incompatibility issue
It has long been an issue that the content line-up varies hugely not just between different brands of connected devices, but between different manufacturers’ own devices. This has largely been down to two reasons: one technical (differences in capability between different product lines) and one tactical (trying to sell more TVs by providing different content on different sets).

Both are becoming less of an issue, with new content being added to devices via firmware updates. The re-launch of Samsung’s TV SDK is compatible with its first SDK, although there are limitations. Hulu Plus, for example, is not available via Samsung Blu-Ray players as it does not have a powerful enough chipset. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some manufacturers have seen this as an opportunity to sell “companion devices” – effectively set-top boxes providing all of that manufacturer’s web content and additional functionality to any TV with an HDMI port. And tellingly, one LG employee who demonstrated its Smart TV companion box still claimed it was a great way to access “the 2011 content on the 2010 TVs”.

Europe and the US continue to diverge: The connected devices landscape continues to diverge across regional lines, with Europe and the US both exhibiting very different characteristics. DivX claims that 45 per cent of DivX-certified devices now ship to Europe, as a result of pay TV operators in the region adopting DivX, and in general producing more diverse consumer preemies equipment than their US counterparts. And while free premium video content is scarce on US connected devices, European broadcasters are embracing the opportunity and offering free catch up services. Yet Europe will likely lag behind in terms of TV application use, as broadcasters such as RTL and TF1 continue to push for the banning of the use of applications in the broadcast stream. One prominent manufacturer claimed that this was directly delaying the launch of its flagship device in Europe.


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