Jan. 12, 2012 at 1:16 AM ET
There has been a lot of news about smart TVs and apps and interfaces this week at the Consumer Electronics Show. But just as 3-D TVs haven't captured the fancy of many buyers, there's no guarantee that smart TVs will do any better. A TV that connects to the Internet for downloading movies or TV shows in one thing; but navigating a screen full of app icons may be more appealing on a smartphone or tablet than on the crown jewel of screens, the home TV.
Google has renewed its effort at Google TV after Version 1.0 fared poorly last year. Users and critics complained of complexity, confusing interface and lack of premium content. The search giant has commitments from Samsung, Sony, LG and VIzio to use the new and improved version this year in some sets, but many consumers don't want to deal with the app hassle — or the number of apps, which can multiply faster than cable channels.
Leading TV maker Samsung says it has "improved the user interface" for its native, non-Google smart TVs this year. "The Smart Hub interface has a cleaner, more intuitive UI," said Ethan Rasiel, Samsung Electronics America spokesman.
Rasiel says there are now "over 1,400 apps through Samsung Apps, in categories such as music, sports, fitness, social networking and news. Also, through Media Hub, Samsung offers a diverse selection of on-demand movies, TV shows and 3-D content right to the living room. If you purchase content on one device, you can watch it on all of your Samsung devices."
"Smart TVs have a pretty strong level of capability, but consumers may be intimidated by the complexity, especially around set up," said Paul Gagnon, NPD DisplaySearch director of North American TV research. "If a manufacturer can come up with a better out-of-the-box experience, it would be a big help to encouraging sooner adoption among the less techie crowd."
And when it comes to apps, "social apps are interesting, but with the usage of these apps effectively interrupting the TV view experience — a big problem if more than one person is watching TV — I think most consumers will stick to a preference for streaming video apps on the TV. For now, at least."
Officials from Sony, which is fighting to regain its leading role as a TV maker, say they realize that there's still some consumer convincing that needs to be done before buyers choose sets with Internet connections, much less fuss with apps.
"We do have some work to do to make it easier for the consumer who may not be so savvy about how to connect to the Internet (via TV)," said Phil Molyneux, head of Sony Electronics (USA).
"One of the things we at Sony need to do — and perhaps the electronics industry as a whole when it comes to TVs and connectivity — is to get the message out to our customers," said Kaz Hirai, president and group CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment. "We have to make sure the connectivity is as easy as possible, (and) promote and talk about that excitement."
Beyond connectivity and apps, other problems arise with the various remote controls and software updates that Internet-connect TVs need.
Samsung says it's "breaking down consumers' biggest barrier to purchase — rapidly outdated technology — by future-proofing the TV."
The company's "Smart Evolution" kit lets buyers "enjoy the latest technology and services on their TV, years after they purchased their set":
Consumers don't have to worry about their newly purchased TV becoming 'out of date.' This solution will be easily available. Consumers can purchase the Evolution Kit, which includes software and hardware enhancements, and easily plug it into a slot on the back of their TVs.
Still, all of these things are additional add-ons to deal with, think about, and factor in when it comes to the TV experience. That may be why there's more excitement this year at CES about 55-inch OLED screens and voice and motion controls for TV than for smart TVs. The phrase alone elicits a glazed-over look by many, while others snicker at the oxymoronic possibilities.
There are so many products that now use "smart" in their names that the word has lost its impact to some degree. And it may be in danger of turning away buyers, instead of turning them on.
Waiting, floating somewhere off to the side of the TV wars is word of a possible TV from Apple, something Steve Jobs talked about before he died to biographer Walter Isaacson.
"It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it," Jobs told Isaacson.
An Apple TV set has manufacturers such as Sony on edge, with Apple making ease of use a key ingredient in its products, and the element behind much of the company's success.
NPD DisplaySearch, in a new report, says that it sees demand for Internet-connected growing from 9 million shipments in 2011 to 24.7 million in 2014.
How many of those TVs will be smart TVs, as we know them know, remains to be seen.
"Heavy interactivity requires a re-think of the remote control. It also can be far beyond the familiar passive entertainment of conventional television," the research firm said in its "Connected Home: Smart TV Special" report, adding:
Some set makers have decided to bring the full Internet to the living room and incorporate (Web) browsers. While this is an attractive idea, it places serious burdens on the TV designer: solving the ease of use when a screen is three or four meters away is not easy. Websites require a cursor and complicated movements such as ‘click and drag’ which is not easily achieved with a conventional TV remote control. A shift to wireless remote controls is becoming necessary to handle more complex interactivity tasks. At the same time, the TV will have to be capable of updating itself — we are all familiar with the regular updates to Flash Player and Java —and such updating is not simple: who would we call if an update failed and our TV software crashed?
Consumers, the research firm said "increasingly expect their devices to share seamlessly and interoperability with handheld devices will become a critical factor for the development of smart TVs. In terms of units shipped worldwide, the tablet market alone is expected to be bigger than TV by 2017."
It sees the future of smart TV as one that will "share tasks with other devices. It’s not comfortable to watch an entire TV program on a tablet or smartphone, but these devices are very good at searching. So the best outcome is to be able to search and select on the handheld, then to transfer the final viewing experience to the TV and slouch on the sofa."
The "killer app" for TV won't be apps, the firm said. It "will remain as watching television — but in future that will be video from an ever-widening choice of sources."
The firm may be onto something. One commenter on a recent msnbc.com story about smart TVs posted this sentiment:
I'm not sure I care so much about all these Smart TV features. Some may be nice, but overall, I want a great picture, a TV that won't break. I'm very into high tech, but could care less if my TV hooks up to Facebook or a bunch of this other stuff. Why pay a bunch extra for something I probably will never use? Adding 100 more features I'll never use really isn't going to make the TV any more desirable to me.
But ultimately one of the biggest complications of the "smart TV" revolution is that it doesn't cost a "bunch extra." In fact, the chances are great that the next TV you buy has smart features, even if you choose your TV strictly on performance or reputation. You'll only find out that it's "smart" when you get it home, and start fiddling around for an Ethernet port or a Wi-Fi password — working through the 27-step wizard before you can get to the six channels of TV you actually care about.