Today's Smart TVs: AOL for the living room

I was pleased to hear that Palm had been sold by HP to someone who may care about it: it will have a life beyond the grave. It's not that bad a platform: Linux underneath, HTML + JavaScript on top, with things like Node.js for the threading library. It shows that you don't need a new programming paradigm (iOS, Android) to write applications for mobile devices, just HTML + JS + device service access.

This is effectively what Chromebooks are trying to provide, as well as some of the features of HTML5. It'll be interesting to see how much resistance that gets from the phone manufacturers. I expect google to be happy, Apple: more reluctant.

And the TV vendors? They've clearly decided that now that television screen diameters have reached their sensible limits for most households, and recognised that 3D as a feature has died, they need a new way to convince everyone to renew their televisions on a three year cycle, and to charge a premium for those new televisions.

Well, a 3-year cycle is the replacement cycle for desktops and games consoles, probably longer than the lifespan of today's phones and tablets, which are on a faster evolutionary curve. The TV vendors must look at the lifespan of tables, and think "we'd like that".

The challenge, then is simple: convincing customers that their existing television is already obsolete, and that that they need a new television (that will also be rapidly obsolete, though that isn't made clear). They also want to charge margins above basic "monitor".

The SmartTV, then represents their strategy. Rather than let the Games consoles evolve to be general purpose Entertainment Consoles, the TV vendors want that money. They're probably realistic to recognise that they can't get in to the existing console business model: a few big games a year, but they will look at phone/tablet app store purchases and think "$10 per app works out if the #of apps increases". Which is of course something that the games console vendors have noticed and are trying to adapt to.

The TV vendors are also unwilling to let anyone else get a toehold. Google TV never took off, they would run from Microsoft making a similar offering. That's a short term strategy which would be killed if Apple were to produce a TV that took the premium market. They must hear the rumours and think "we need a story of our own" -the LG purchase of Palm represents that.

I can see their thinking, but think they will have to change what they deliver to customers in terms of UX to stand a chance against Apple.

This an opinion based on having owned an LG "Smart TV" since January. It is not a Smart TV: it is a monitor with aspirations to be AOL.

Actual use case

The driver for retiring out nearly-ten-year old CRT television was the sprog's acquisition of a PS3 for his birthday: finally we had HD content to display. Getting a new television was now justifiable.

My requirements were: LED TV good for DVD, Blueray and Games, Freeview HD. The right size  for a large, high-ceilinged room that didn't dominate the room; lots of HDMI ports, RGB in. 3D was something that games could take advantage of, so that was on the list if it didn't add too much money. "Smart TV" wasn't something I cared about, as the PS3 was where iPlayer and Netflix would run. I made sure we picked up a "PS3 slim" not the more recent "super slim", for a better blueray loading experence.

The day after Xmas, then, I walked down to Richer Sounds to get a TV to match my requirements, having already sized things up (very nice panasonic iPad app there to simulate a TV on the wall), and explored the options. The TV we got was a 47" LG LED panel, lots of HDMI ports, and at a price point which I was prepared to pay for a TV that I expect to retain for another 6-10 years.

The fact that it was an internet ready SmartTV was a non-issue; I hadn't even intended to wire that bit up to Ether.

We ended up rolling the AV receiver to one with HDMI switching (the old one will move into my office for its sound system) -the new receiver had Airplay from Ether, so the TV zone ended up getting a 4x1GbE ether switch hooked up to the Ether over Power backplane I've been running for a while.

As a result, I can now experience SmartTVs in all its glory.

Like I said, it reminds me of AOL. And perhaps a Windows 98 PC in 1997, when all the dotcom startups were paying the home PC vendors $20 just for an icon on the desktop or a bookmark in IE4:

AOL-class UI

The left third shows live input (top half) and some notification about new content and a product advert (bottom half). That's an advert on a television I paid for, one I can't disable. Using my internet.

That's the AOL feature.

The central third is the "premium" services, which includes "all possible premium services", not "the only ones you are signed up to". It has the three we use: iPlayer (free playback of most BBC TV and radio content of the previous 7 days), Netflix and youtube. The others: I'm not going to sign up for them, yet they are permanently there, taking up space and delivering no value to me.

I suspect that the vendors may give LG a kickback if someone signs up through the TV.

Moving right, there's some other pane, and more off to the right, none of which anyone can be bothered to explore.

What I do see right at the end is the option to create my own "my apps" pane. I was glad to find this, confident I could now set up the TV with the things I wanted, rather than have the services I wanted hidden in the clutter.

Limited customisation

Except: you can't add "premium" services to "my card". They aren't on the list of selectable services.

There must be some separate array of "premium services" from "standard services", with only the standard services being configurable. Two separate arrays, two ways to keep them up to date. Separate tests.

Having to make do with my no-quite-my-card, I can now move it onto the mainscreen and get some of the clutter out the way
no, you can't turn the adverts of

Though again, no ability to move it left of the premium card. That's fixed, with a message at the bottom "cannot move live card and premium card". Someone has gone to the effort of fixing the minimum position of all customisable cards to panels[x] where x>=2, written the tests for it, i18n'd he "cannot move" message.

There we have it then: A UI that takes up 1/6 of the screen space with adverts, clutters up the main screen with that and a pool of premium services that nobody would have more than half of, and which doesn't let me clean up.

In comparison, Apple's "we control your tablet" philosophy is a bubble of flexibility, as I can choose whatever is on the start screen and on the app bar at the bottom. Not in LG "SmartTV" land.
Graham Norton on iPlayer

As the for the applications, they work, iPlayer will happily stream Graham Norton down in HD, which is something I personally consider a defect. You can also mark it as a favourite, which I consider a defect in an individual.

Even so, the viewer isn't as good as the PS3 options. iPlayer's scroll forwards/backwards is very crude, accurate to about 5 minutes, rather than the 30s or so that the PS3 version offers. It's got pretty bad latency in some of the navigation features, implying there's not much caching going on -memory limited?

As for Netflix: you can't add ratings to get better recommendations, you don't get the ability to see the "similar to" recommendations on any film. It's a worse UI than on an iPad.

Which raises a key issue which LG and all the SmartTV vendors have: convincing anyone to code for their devices.

This is the problem that phones have had, which Apple solved by "having massive market share in markets they effectively created, and providing a good user experience for their users, especially if they have a laptop, tablet and phone all from Apple". Google have allowed the other phone and PC vendors to play catch-up through Android,

Phone and tablet developers then, have a small set of options.
  1. Apple. Essential if you do tablet work, important if you do phones. Their own programming language and tooling, oppressive qualification process -offering users trustable apps when they've finished. What's nice about apple: a minimal number of platforms to test on, and with new OS releases backported, no reason not to adopt the latest features.
  2. Android. The other app platform: Java language and compatible runtime; open to all vendors, though customers get different backport experiences based on phone vendors. For developers: a lot more testing, and you have to worry about which OS versions are in use in the field. Support calls are probably worse. In favour though: one core codebase for all Android phones.
  3. HTML5. Viable if you are targeting an on-line only world, though phone support here has been weak (cite: facebook's move from HTML5 to apps).  
  4. There's also Windows Mobile, which may be too late as an app platform, and will have to focus on delivering an excellent HTML5 experience.
How is any one SmartTV vendor going to play here if these platforms move into the TV world? Either they talk to MS or Google and say "we can't do platforms, help us". Or they say HTML5 is all we need, and work to deliver a really good HTML5 experience (that DRM in HTML5 may help or hinder here. Help: let Netflix and those traitors to openness at the BBC deliver apps, hinder if they can't actually get the closed codec/auth modules).

I don't see LG's acquisition of Palm being sufficient to stop them being forced to copy the phone/tablet strategies.
  • If Apple comes to play, they can take advantage of their tablets, phones and iPod touches, make these the personal GUI for the TV, recognise that multiple people in front of the TV will have them, and provide an app platform that lets developers write apps that not only can work on tablets, phones and TVs -but can even work between them. NetFlix does some of that already -their tablet/phone apps can tell the PS3 and the TV to play content, which helps compensate for some of the limitations of the TV app.
  • Google can come to the other vendors and say "here's a way out". Samsung are already making Android phones and tablets -I'd expect them to go with Google. Sony have android phones too, but they have the PS4 to work on too -and presumably see that as more strategic than smart TVs.
  • LG? Palm? They don't have the market share. Unless they can get together with the other TV vendors and say "here's an independent strategy" -and have them listen.
Irrespective of what strategy today's TV vendors take, one thing they have to recognise is that their AOL-class GUI isn't going to cut it. If in-TV applications take off, the quality of the UX is going to matter, and right now, they are 15 years behind what PCs, Phones and tablets are offering.

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