I have a theory about smart TVs. We still don’t really know what makes them “smart.”
Right now, the minimal definition of a smart TV is a connection to the internet. This is what we’ve been working with for a few years now, and it hasn’t gotten us very far.
If you look back just a few years, we had the same problem with smartphones. We thought we knew what made them smart: e-mail and keyboards. Apple’s iPhone lit the fuse that blew that up: Now, it’s touchscreens and app stores as far as the eye can see.
Google’s new take on the smart TV suggests Google thinks the TV should be like a 2011 smartphone. Lots of applications that put web services and web video on your TV screen.
It’s easy to see why Google’s taken this approach. By any measure, Android smartphones have been a huge success. And Google TV’s first take, which was based on Google’s core business in search, didn’t really take with customers or television networks very much at all.
But I don’t think smartphones are a terrific model for smart TVs. It’s not the apps; Android and its development community are flexible enough, and there are plenty of video applications already to make an object like that fairly compelling.
These are the two biggest and best-established problems with porting the smartphone model over to televisions:
- Smartphones are basically mobile and self-contained. This means that the devices are primarily used solo, so manufacturers put as many capabilities as possible into them: web, media, games, productivity. Meanwhile, television sets are basically static and networked. They stay in one place and have to interface with a lot of other machines, from remote controls to cable boxes and gaming or media consoles.
- These days, smartphones are high volume and relatively disposable devices. Users change over devices every few years, and manufacturers sell a lot of them. TVs aren’t like that. Horace Dediu wrote a post showing that the TV market (smart and non-smart) is a fraction of the smartphone market, and even smaller than the tablet market. We’re basically saturated with big screens.
Then again, the smartphone market once wasn’t very big either. What would have to happen is probably a redefinition of iPhone proportions.
This week, Nick Bilton stirred the smart TV pot in the tech blogosphere. Bilton’s anonymous Apple sources confirmed long-standing rumors of Apple’s plans to pull off a redefinition of smart TVs similar to its redefinition of smartphones.
Walter Isaacson’s new biography had already quoted Jobs saying “I’ve finally cracked it!” to the problem of smart TVs. Bilton’s primary addition was a piece we’d already speculated on, that the new Apple smart TV would use Siri’s voice-driven AI as the primary interface. This, says Bilton, is what Jobs meant: not just an all-in-one integrated TV, but a new interface.
However, Bilton also says the device won’t be coming any time soon; high-quality display costs need to keep falling before Apple can make a powerful AI-computer-inside-a-TV set affordable. Meanwhile, we’ve got plenty of set-top boxes (including Apple’s) and Google’s rebooted TV now, or in the next week or so.
It’s also still a picture of the future of television that basically says an Apple TV (or iTV) will be a lot like Apple’s iPhone 4S. It says the model for the smart TV is the smartphone — just Apple’s version, not Google’s.
Maybe a combination of a voice/touch interface, AI command and search functions, cloud storage, and a high-quality audio-video experience are enough. When I write it all down, it sounds pretty good. I’m sure Apple could sell TV sets like that at generous margins and turn them into a decent business.
It’s not really a breakthrough, though. With Xbox, Kinect and WinPhone, Microsoft already has voice, gesture and cloud components contributing to the living room experience. It doesn’t really change the fundamental economics of the television market, both in the number of sets sold each year and in the convoluted nature of the business relationships between cable providers, channels, content creators, software developers and so forth. Does Siri have a solution for that?
One solution proposed by John Hermann earlier this year is to stop trying to make TVs so smart, and just make them really good screens, dumb monitors for whatever content you want to throw onto them. But that doesn’t solve the problem of cable clutter and disintegrated services. It also doesn’t recognize that the future of every electronic device is most likely a networked one.
The real problem is that we’ve been thinking about televisions in terms of the wrong networks, whether wired speakers and set-top boxes, or smartphone-style apps that fetch Netflix and YouTube from the web.
I don’t see a future for the television where it becomes a stand-alone device, a unique experience fully contained in one box. I don’t think that’s the smartphone’s future either. The television, like the personal computer, will always have to be able to communicate with multiple devices, whether it’s doing that wired or wirelessly, on a local network or up in the cloud.
The smart TV of the future connects with my smartphone, my tablet, my laptop and my e-reader, as well as my refrigerator, my thermostat. Because it’s stationary and has the most screen real estate, it partially replaces the personal computer as the digital hub of the household, just as the smartphone replaces the PC as the digital hub for the individual.
Ultimately, it’s connections, not the internet or a lack of cables, that will make both smartphones and especially smart TVs smarter. In the process, it will reinvent our concept of what personal computing is, has been and ought to become. That’s what we’re waiting for.