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The Road to Success for Smart TV Lies in the Cloud

Smart TV launched on the market with a vision of bringing online content into the heart of the living room. It was supposed to open the door to a whole new scope of home entertainment, bringing families together and encouraging consumer engagement. On paper, the concept seemed promising, but the reality has proven quite the contrary. Despite smart TV shipments growing 55% in 2013, data from a recent Strategy Analytics consumer survey found that only 50% of smart TV owners in Europe and the U.S. are using their TV’s internet capabilities. So why, when according to research by IHS over 70% of U.S. homes have broadband access, is there still a reluctance by consumers to use the "smart" function on their smart TVs? Seemingly, the reason can be traced down to two main factors: a poor user experience and the lack of content available.

The Smart TV User Experience

We live in a society where everyone is attached to their smartphones and tablets, where consumers are accustomed to instant access to anything, anywhere, straight from their handheld device. Thanks to video on demand (VoD) services like Netflix and HBO Go, consumers now have the power to choose, play, pause, and stop movies and TV shows alike at the time most convenient to them. As a result, the nature of video consumption is evolving. A recent survey by the IAB (Interactive Advertising Bureau) found that while people plan what they watch on linear TV, they don’t feel the same need when it comes to watching content online. The majority of online content is currently accessed on a second screen device, but going forward this need not be the case. Smart TVs can easily access all online content, and provide the big-screen, lean-back experience consumers expect in their living room, giving it the potential to become the primary platform for both linear and online viewing. To succeed, however, vast improvements must first be made to the experience of watching and accessing content on the smart TV.

Recent research from the NPD’s Connected TV User Experience report found ease of use features were four of the top ten desired features highlighted by consumers. These included an easy-to-use remote control and the ease of finding new apps. Such findings demonstrate that consumers want to experience the same simplistic navigation on their TV as they already have on their smartphones and tablets. It won’t be long before we see the rise of an expectation to seamlessly switch between each device—be it smartphone, tablet or TV—in the connected home.

This research is nothing new. Last year, Philips uWand conducted research into the lack of engagement with smart TV services. Polling a mixture of employees working with service providers and in the consumer electronics industry, the research found that only 34% of employees actually owned a smart TV, and of those who did, less than 10% of their viewing time was spent interacting with smart TV services. If these are the people at the forefront of developing and selling smart TVs, it’s no surprise that consumers are also failing to demonstrate any enthusiasm too. Evidently something has been going wrong.

Yet, over a year on, we’re still facing the same problems.  While the graphical user interface has advanced significantly, the remote control—arguably at the center of smart TV interaction—has failed to catch up.

If the smart TV is to live up to expectations and gain a foothold in the connected home, manufacturers need to make vast improvements to the archaic remote control. After all, it is no longer practical to design remotes with a button for every function—it makes accessing content on the TV a laborious process when it should be in keeping with the consumer desire to dip in and out of content at ease, as and when they please. Given this, it’s no surprise that consumers are still choosing a second screen over their smart TV for accessing content online. And if a simple task like selecting a TV show through the EPG seems tedious, other functions like browsing the internet and playing games on the smart TV are even more so.

Some, feeble attempts have been made to improve the remote control (like those based on gyroscope technology), but these have resulted in poor implementations that have failed to improve user experience, and in some cases have actually hampered further innovations and improvements 

It’s hard to imagine why we continue to face this ongoing issue when the solution is so simple. If smart TV remotes were installed with alternatives technologies—like direct pointing remote control technologies—the smart TV experience would be enhanced significantly. But the problem is smart TV manufacturers  have failed to monetize the content offering and seemingly have no real stake in whether or not online content is being consumed. Additionally, they are yet to realize the new revenues that could be generated from additional services simply by making improvements to user interface. 

Content and the Cloud

While smart TV manufacturers are not making these improvements, it is down to pay TV operators like Comcast and TWC to drive this change if they want to attract new customers. Only by offering better functionality that goes beyond VoD can operators have any hope of becoming a true contender in the connected home. Subscribers today want more than just catch up TV on their set top boxes. They’re looking for a platform that offers a more mobile-like experience, whether it’s for playing games, browsing the internet, or streaming a movie on Netflix. Standardization will be key in obtaining this, and much can be learned from the mobile space.

App developers are drawn toward the mobile platform, which has two dominant development environments: Android or iOS. But for operator set top boxes (STBs), a similar consistency is lacking. As a result, app developers have failed to demonstrate a similar enthusiasm for the STB. While the big players like YouTube and Netflix can afford to invest time and money into developing apps for the countless, vendor-specific development environments, smaller developers can’t afford to do the same. Compare the app store offering on your current STB with that of your iOS or Android store and you’ll see where I’m coming from.

Operators need to provide app developers with a standardized platform on which to build, and the cloud will be key in achieving this. A cloud-based service platform will provide a much needed boost to TV operators and smart TV manufacturers, giving them the tools they need to grow their ecosystem and generate new revenue by offering new products, games, and add-on services.

No longer tied to specific hardware environments, app developers would be able to design for a thin-client platform accessible from any STB. Ultimately, this would make the TV platform more attractive to app developers and consumers alike. Pay TV operators will finally be able to close the doors on an era where a new expensive STB is introduced every time a new feature or service is rolled out. Supported by a cloud server operated on the backend, operators could send out software updates as and when they are made available.

With developers looking to introduce an array of new services and games available on STBs, the challenge faced by operators is to make the development platform easier to use, and the user experience easier to navigate. By adopting new technologies that offer alternatives to the traditional remote control, like direct pointing, operators will soon be able to offer subscribers a truly mobile-like experience.

[This is a contributed article. StreamingMedia.com accepts contributed articles from vendors based solely upon the value they provide to our readers.]

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