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Smart TVs struggle to be heard amidst the clamour for 4K

Whilst much of the attention this week has been on 4K TVs, with exhibitors at the US CES trade show unveiling new Ultra HD TVs and recording equipment (although director Michael Bay’s attention wandered during Samsung’s high profile launch), spare a thought for the now-humble Smart TV.

It seems like only yesterday that Smart TVs were the latest ‘big thing’, although vast amounts of misplaced marketing money to promote 3D TV diverted much of the attention of consumers away from connected sets. That was a huge own goal for the TV industry. And now the marketing around 4K TV could well herald the end of ‘smart’ being a principal buying decision, and the feature going the way of Nicam Stereo, HDMI and DTV tuners as being taken for granted in any new set.

The problem with Smart TV is that it doesn’t embrace the whole entertainment business. With 3D and 4K, it’s not just about the sets, it’s also about recording equipment, transmission and storage, and extends from the consumer space through to broadcasters and the film industry. It’s big money.

Smart TV, in contrast, is only of potential interest to consumers and the OTT entertainment and information companies. Yes, broadcasters can add a catch-up TV app, but we’re mainly talking about the integration of internet services, and for goodness sake don’t mention Netflix to the entertainment Establishment. Smart TV isn’t going to shift any hideously over-priced broadcast gear, or cause the post production industry to upgrade every single piece of equipment.

But Smart TVs are here; they are being sold and they are being used. Their use may not be as significant as hoped at this stage, but as faster broadband reaches more homes, and if common standards and formats can be agreed, then there should be higher take-up.

Addressing the issue of commonality of apps between different Smart TV models, the Smart TV Alliance this week announced that it will launch a Common Developer Portal in May, designed to give app developers better support.

Currently, app developers need to negotiate a separate developer contract for each individual manufacturer in order to publish content. The Smart TV Alliance hopes to overcome those inefficiencies with a single developer contract for publishing apps to all of the STA compliant devices.

“The new Common Developer Portal shows Smart TV Alliance apps are market ready for manufacturers, solution providers and consumers on a variety of televisions and devices,” said Seijiro Yasuki, President of Smart TV Alliance and Chief Technology Executive of Digital Products and Services at Toshiba. “It encourages a vibrant smart TV ecosystem and removes the barriers to application development while enhancing the smart TV experience for consumers.”

The industry group is also developing its efforts to connect smart TVs to the rest of the ‘smart home’. It has published a specification based on open standards, including WebSocket, JSON, HTML5, and JavaScript, to ensure compatibility with the largest number of smart home devices worldwide. The idea is that apps running on a smart TV can control and interact with connected devices elsewhere in the home.

Also this week, Mozilla announced that, not content with trying to break into the smartphone OS market, its Firefox OS will be making moves on the smart TV sector.

“In 2014, we expect to see Firefox OS deployed in new ways,” said Mozilla COO Jay Sullivan. “The flexibility of Firefox OS is also generating interest in form factors beyond the smartphone. As the Internet comes to your wrist, your car and your TV, Mozilla would like to see the Web principles of openness and a level playing field in these areas, too.”

Cue the news from Panasonic that its intends to deploy Firefox OS on its new smart TVs. It’s a welcome move away from closed proprietary platforms and to the open Web standards of HTML5, and hopefully will be followed by similar announcement from other manufacturers.

“Through Panasonic’s partnership with Mozilla, we will create further innovation in smart TV technologies and features, which will take consumers to a whole new level of interaction and connectivity inside and outside of the home,” said Yuki Kusumi, Director of the TV Business Division at Panasonic.

What this means in practice is that – as well as greater opportunities to integrate cloud-based Internet services with the screen – basic functions, such as menus and electronic programme guides (EPGs) that are currently written as embedded programmes, will now be written in HTML5, making it possible for developers to create cross platform apps that can access these functions. It could herald the end of the humble remote clicker as we know it.

Again, it’s all about trying to position the smart TV as the hub of the smart home, with smartphones and tablets becoming the new controllers.

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