LAS VEGAS – Brace yourself for the dawn of a new consumer electronics era, one in which TV no longer defines itself. Evident in this year’s Consumer Electronics Show was the notion that mobile devices are beginning to redefine what TV must do next – in terms of apps, services and connectivity that hardware will need to accommodate.
Samsung made the strongest pitch for this approach at CES. Leveraging its position as the world’s top TV brand, No. 1 smartphone vendor and one of the strongest semiconductor manufacturers, the Korean giant is challenging developers to create “multi-screen apps” that take advantage of mobiles, tablets and smart TVs. Samsung’s goal is to break down the boundaries for content, apps and services among disparate devices.
If multi-screen apps are indeed the way of the future, then where is the CE industry’s next battle line?
According to Kumu Puri, a senior executive with Accenture’s Electronics & High-Tech Group, “The last battleground [for the CE industry] has already moved from TV to mobile.”
Last year’s CES will be remembered for the increasing role media tablets could play in the living room. But few predicted the extent of the changes tablets could bring to the traditional PC-vs.-TV debate.
Accenture found that 44 percent of tablet owners stream media content while 43 percent download applications at least once a week. More important, the same survey found that the share of consumers watching broadcast or cable TV in a typical week on televisions plummeted from 71 percent in 2009 to 48 percent in 2011.
Several semiconductor executives here opined on how mobile devices are becoming important in the future of TV. In an exclusive interview with EE Times, MediaTek President C.J. Hsieh stressed the significance of having a big play in both mobile and TV platforms. It’s true for chip companies and system vendors alike that survival in the consumer electronics market means “you have to play in both. Being a cross-platform gives you a significant advantage,” said Hsieh.
Broadcom, which exited the DTV business last fall but maintains a substantial presence in the set-top box market, is building its product strategy on the mantra: “Easy to share and connect.”
At the company’s booth, every demo showed peer-to-peer connectivity (wireless or wired) among mobile devices, small set-tops and TV for sharing content.
Rafael Sotomayor, vice president of Broadcom’s mobile platform solutions group, acknowledged that the demos “may be a little on the rough side,” predicting that “mobile will influence a lot of features [in] TVs.”
Broadcom is pushing its first family of 802.11ac chips. The new wireless technology allows less video compression, resulting in much less latency (less than 50 milliseconds) and higher resolution, claimed Broadcom. The company is pushing the technology so that mobile device content move from small screens and get connected with a cross-platform, Wi-Fi display solution.
Questions remain, though. For example, what is needed to connect all these mobile devices and TVs? What would be the killer multi-screen app?
Consumers have already discovered they don’t really need to surf the Web on TV. They can do that on a tablet, while also stationed on the couch watching TV. Moreover, consumers already know they really don’t have to watch TV on the couch. They can stream video on a tablet and watch it in bed. Why bother streaming video content from PC, tablet or phone to the TV?
Those pushing Wi-Fi Direct and Wi-Fi display solutions like Sigma Design and Broadcom believe that a small access point or a set-top featuring Wi-Fi Direct, loaded with Netflix and other applications, would make such a streaming scenario much simpler, and more viable commercially.
It’s true, however, that there isn’t a single, simple step available now to make content-sharing happen among multiple screens.
Samsung can reasonably expect customers with its Galaxy phones, Galaxy Tab and Samsung large screen TV to be able to connect all three devices – just as Apple’s constituency believes in a cohesive Apple home environment.
But for most consumers with a host of different consumer devices – each on a different operating system, with divergent graphics and video capabilities – the new Wi-Fi Direct set top will be critical. It needs to be smart enough to do everything from de-interlacing (dealing with different resolutions of screens) to developing a new middleware to handle different operating systems.
Sounds easy, but a smooth peer-to-peer connectivity experience among disparate mobile and consumer devices is still in development.
Others think that seeing tweets or instant chats pop up on their large-screen TV will redefine the TV. In fact, consumers are already sending SMS messages during sports events via their TV.
That alone may not require a behavioral change among consumers. And that’s a good sign.
But would it be enough to make consumers go out and buy a new TV? Answering her own rhetorical question, Accenture’s Puri said, “I am not sure.”
Fifteen years ago, the CE industry was sweating over the PC’s potential invasion of the living room. The PC-vs.-TV battle drove technology agendas in both industries -- ranging from interfaces, video codecs, CPUs to operating systems, middleware, Java, and of course, emerging DTV standards.
Each side argued over arcane issues such as who would control the home and benefit from information super highway? Would it be a 500-channel cable set-top box, a TV with smarts or a PC?
As the debate raged, the Web exploded, sending the CE industry scrambling to develop a host of new devices ranging from Web TV to Internet-enabled TVs, living room PCs and cable set tops with the walled-garden Internet experience.
After several years of trial and error, the industry’s initial excitement over “Internet TV” slowly faded, finally yielding to a realization that TVs and PCs are fundamentally different.
With the possible exception of Intel, nobody sees the PC as the heart of home entertainment. Over the last few years, though, Google TV has revived the notion of a more powerful, brainier TV, re-dubbed the “smart TV.” The “Connected TV” pitch was heard everywhere during CES 2012.
The consumer landscape has gotten more complicated, though, with smart phones and media tablets now in the mix of connected devices that now rival the TV for importance in the minds of consumers.
To be sure, TV companies without a big mobile presence are likely to struggle. TV vendors need a strategy, devising an effective way for consumers to connect, work and play effortlessly with a number of different mobile devices and TV.