Upward mobility: TVs are the new mobile

Mobile developers to gain a new set of platforms for their apps

photo: EricaJoy http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Chromecast_dongle.jpg One of the perennial technologies that regularly appears at the Consumer Electronics Show is the smart TV set, but they never seem to gain the kind of traction that the manufacturers hope that they will. This may finally be coming to a end, however, as a new generation of smart TVs are poised to enter the market. Even Apple is finally supposed to release their own products in this space this year. And when these hyper-aware TV sets enter the Internet of Things, they are likely to do it running mobile operating systems.

The reasons for this are several. From a purely economic standpoint, the margins on televisions don’t really afford room to pay for a full-blown desktop operating system license, nor the hardware required to support a rich desktop environment. It’s also unclear that anyone would want to run Microsoft Word or other general types of software on their TV. While a free operating system such as a desktop Linux OS might fit the bill, especially since it is famous for being able to run on a meager amount of hardware, it is equally unclear if it will be able to run the software that manufacturers and users are going to want to see on a TV.

photo: Mike L http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Apple_TV_2nd_Generation.jpg

The value that Android and iOS bring to the table in a TV application is that they are already engineered to run on light-weight hardware, and have application infrastructure in the form of their app stores that contains a wealth of appropriate applications. End-users are going to be much more likely to want to run Angry Birds or Cut the Rope on their TV than Excel. Mobile operating systems are also engineered to run in a keyboard-less mode, although it is difficult to think how touchscreen would work on a 60″ TV.

The solution that Apple took to this problem when they developed the Apple TV set top box was to pair it with an App on the iPhone. That gave users the advantages of a touchscreen they could use while sitting, but it can be awkward to use since you are either looking at the iPhone or the TV screen, but it’s hard to do both at the same time.

Google appears to be going more the route of Apple TV with their Chromecast dongle. Rather than integrate their hardware and software into a TV, they have positioned Chromecast as an accessory to attach to existing sets. Neither Chromecast nor Apple TV can run apps on their own, although there have been persistent rumors that Apple TV might gain it’s own app store.

Certainly, the television is becoming just another peripheral that can be used as part of a larger ecosystem of PCs, tablets and phones. Increasingly, consumers can divorce the device that generates the content from the device that displays it. Half the time, we’re watching anime at home via Crunchyroll on our Apple TV; half the time someone is just firing it up on an iPhone and using the Apple TV as a display. With technologies like Tivo’s Romio, the material you record on your downstairs DVR may be viewed in your bedroom using an iPad. The house (and in fact, the entire world) has become an interconnected web of devices. If you want a deeper investigation of how this may play out, Michal Levin touches on how to leverage this new ecosystem in Designing Multi-Device Experiences.

It will be very surprising if an new Apple TV product doesn’t run some version of iOS, and Android is likely to show up on units from companies such as Samsung, who are already familiar with the OS from their handsets. The only question is if Surface from Microsoft will have any impact on this new market. Much of that is going to depend on how greedy Microsoft decides they want to be on license terms.

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