The battle for control of the next generation living room is shaping up to be one of the titanic, messy contests of the next decade. Yeah -- decade. I don’t see how this one shakes out, if it ever does, very soon.
The number of players trying to get a toehold on the smarter TV is amazing. Just to name a few: all the major TV manufacturers and their smart TV interfaces and apps, cable and satellite providers and their digital set-top boxes, Google TV, Apple TV, Roku, Boxee, Xbox, PS3, every connected Blu-ray player, and so many more. All of these devices are trying to merge the interactivity of Web and apps with traditional TV.
And no one is even close to being there yet. I know whereof I speak, because my own years of coverage of this space have left my living room a clogged mess of connected devices.
Let’s just review how I already depend on different ones for different things. I use Roku for the offbeat video suppliers like dedicated classic movie and old TV providers, because its selection is notably quirky and more open than most. My daughter uses the Xbox for collaborative Netflix movie viewing with friends, where they each watch the same movie in different locations and squeal and snork over headsets. I use the Google TV for the best Web browser of the bunch as well as for access to some of the YouTube channel partners that have crafted cross-platform video apps. I use the Comcast box for TV catch-ups, since my triple-play service gives me access to a wider range of HD films and TV series for free. The PlayStation 3 now has a pretty good iteration of the Amazon Instant Video interface, so I can access my free streaming media off of my Prime account there.
But most of all, we still rely in my house on the Apple TV attachment, which is still the best interface for digital movie rentals and Netflix access as well as tapping into the photo streams my three-iPhone house can render.
Yeah -- it gets complicated. But beyond content, one of the key determinants of which input to use is its interface and mobile extension. However kludgy Comcast may be on just about every level imaginable, its iPhone and iPad apps are very handy for TV navigation and locating on-demand materials. Xbox now has issued mobile apps that give us increasingly deep control of the interface, because using a game controller to manage video playback is a new definition of living-room hell.
All of this is to say that I get behind a sentiment recently voiced by ABI Research Senior Analyst Michael Inouye in his analysis of the set-top battlefield. “The future of connected CE will ultimately work together with mobile devices and not against them,” he says in a new report. “Other connected devices like connected TVs and game consoles are already integrating mobile devices into the user experience, the same will likely prove true for smart set-top boxes as well.”
For the mobile-to-TV wars that are looming, this means that Google could have a good position, especially outside of the U.S. where a number of markets are thick with Android phones and tend to prefer connected TV add-on devices through things like USB dongles and the like. The next generations of Android-based TV boxes could and should work even more tightly with mobile devices to create some interesting synergies.
No doubt that including the social layer in mobile connections to the TV will be a critical component. Xbox’s Live app is doing some of this, but don’t take your eye off of Comcast in this regard. Their latest version of the Xfinity iPhone app integrates social messaging in ways that make the living room experience feel connected to other living rooms. All of the stuff going on in “second screening” and “social TV” applications ultimately will have to play a role here. We are already seeing how the mobile device will get beyond serving just as a cool remote control. It will be the piece of the TV experience that ties it to content discovery, remote viewing, interactions with the screen, and content discovery.
And by the way, do not overlook Samsung in all of this. With one of the largest installed bases of both smartphones and smart TVs on the planet, the company is now developing both a cross-platform ad network and content creation. Months back they hired AOL content chief David Eun to lead media development. On paper at least, this is a company that has at least as many pieces of the mobile-to-TV ecosystem in place as Apple.
Apple and Microsoft will not stand still for this, of course. The next iterations of Windows devices and Apple TV surely will expand the selection of on-screen TV apps and make the mobile devices richer second screens. The smartest TV in the room of the future may be the one ion your hand -- not on the wall.