The Next Big Tech Battleground: the TV

I’m a couch potato. There, I’ve said it. I love sitting down and watching sci-fi movies, like any good geek would. And this is an (almost religious) action that hasn’t changed for many, many, years. But I feel that we’re in for a surprise soon. The way we watch TV and access content is about to change. TV watching will at last arrive into the 21st Century, and the technology giants will be there to duke it out for the reins of this new industry.

Apple has tried to revolutionize TV via its Apple TV product, but as Steve Jobs said recently on D8, that industry is so balkanized that it’s very difficult to enter. He also claimed that Google will experience the same difficulties with its upcoming Google TV.

Mr Jobs has a good point. The cable and satellite companies own the TV experience and won’t let anyone take it from them. However, can anyone really stop an inevitable change? Can anyone stop natural evolution? I don’t think so. The modernization of the TV is bound to happen, and it’s one I am expecting for a few years now. I have my own theory as to how this needs to happen:

First, you need to build an open software platform, and a hardware reference — a solution that fits at the innards of a thin HDTV. That HDTV must have access to an Ethernet connection and/or WiFi. Each TV manufacturer must include with every new TV model shipped this small (standard, upgradeable?) hardware piece that also has a network-upgradeable firmware. The software included must be compatible with all the other new TVs in the market. And it must run applications — similar, if not exactly the same, to the ones you can find on your smartphone. The reason why all TVs must run the same platform is that if each manufacturer goes with their own incompatible implementation this will never take off. You can’t have AIM with video support via your TV’s webcam on one TV, with only MSN Messenger support on another TV. All TVs are either compatible, or the much needed revolution won’t happen.

Of course, the two front-runners for this revolution are Apple with their iOS operating system, and Google with GoogleTV/Android. But I personally believe that for either company to get ahead they must ditch “the box”. People don’t want to buy yet another box (aside their PS3, XBoX, Wii, AppleTV, WD TV, TiVo, Comcast etc.) to shove it somewhere in their living room too. What people want is something that comes with the TV and works out of the box. People don’t want to think in terms of “a box that’s separate from Comcast’s”. They want to think in terms of “I don’t need Comcast anymore, my TV can do miracles and serve me the content I want, all by itself”.

Sure, people don’t buy new TVs often, so baking the hardware/software solution inside an HDTV will make the whole idea more difficult to take off. However, I’m confident that this solution is cleaner, and young people (the advert-important 18-49 age group) will go for it. Just like many went for these 3D HDTVs this year. This is a solution that offers the user experience these technology-inclined individuals want (because they’re accustomed to it via their smartphones), and with cheaper content.

The reason why I decided to write this article is because I’ve been thinking lately that the next big battleground for consumer technology (after the PC, and cellphone wars) is the TV — a conclusion I reached through my recent experience with Netflix and Hulu Plus on my Sony PS3. I get all these movies, shows, documentaries that make me want to ditch my Comcast box (which costs me a whopping $90 per month for the HD channels and DVR — and that’s without the movie channels or HBO). The only thing that’s missing from the new experience is Live TV (e.g. sports). But if a “smart” platform reaches our TVs, that lets you run applications, and have access to Netflix/Hulu/etc. content via their native applications for that platform, then Live TV will be inevitable. And if it’s to come later than sooner, there’s always the solution of an aerial antenna for these few times that you might want to watch Live TV. The bottom line is: it’s much cheaper, it’s on-demand, it’s interactive, and it’s offered via a modern user experience.

The only real obstacle in the kind of future I present in this article are Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon. These companies make big business over their cable TV solutions, and it’s unfortunate that they’re also internet providers. Do you really think that Comcast will let you stream this highly competitive content over their network? I didn’t think so. It’d be like committing business suicide.

Yes, some of these Satellite and Cable providers already offer On Demand TV/movies. However, these services offer a very narrow view of what the TV can do. The TV can, and should do more. The TV can and should function like a more powerful device, that does more than stream video (example of what it could do). None of these old-style cable TV providers can take the TV to the next level. They are not software people. And their network was built upon very specific ideas, ideas that it would make it very expensive for them to replace that infrastructure (Comcast is working on an h.264-based box for years now, and yet we’re still on mpeg-2 because of the huge cost involved changing all the cable boxes). In other words, innovation must come from the outside. From companies that are used to creating “platforms” instead.

So it all comes down to net neutrality. If this much-discussed law passes, at last, eventually our TVs will get revolutionized. Maybe it will take a few more years for all the TV manufacturers to settle down to the same platform, but it will happen.

However, if the law never passes, and all the IP-based content providers get blocked or slowed down to the point that only SD quality videos can get streamed without hiccups, it’d be a huge shame. It’d definitely be one more reason for me to have this love-hate relationship that I have with the tech world for a few years now. It would further make me wanna have that herd of sheep in the mountains, and never look back to the “civilized” world.


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