Published November 20th, 2015
In the end, it all comes down to content. And as Tim Cook put it during his introduction of the new Apple TV, content in this brave new world means apps. You can have the greatest TV platform in the world, but without the right apps with the right content, a platform is completely irrelevant. The list of apps grows every month, and includes such well known names as Netflix, YouTube, HBO Now, Hulu Plus, Showtime, Amazon Prime Instant Video, Sling TV, CBS All Access, BBC iPlayer, Plex, Wuaki.tv, Crackle, Twitch and PlayStation Vue. Also important are the various sports apps, such as NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, Red Bull TV, WWE and UFC. And these are just the major, mostly international services. Each country will have its own local variations and there are many other niche-focused services.
Creating an overview of which apps are available on which TV platforms is nearly impossible with such a diverse list. Any such overview would also be outdated almost immediately, with apps being launched left and right each week, so I’ll leave that as an exercise to the reader for a rainy Sunday afternoon.
For a long time, the wide selection of apps was one of Roku’s most important strengths which made it stand out from the rest of the crowd. However, now every platform is on a mad scramble to get as good an app coverage as it can, so Roku’s head start is growing smaller each month.
Open App Store
A TV platform can have all the content and each app in the world available on it, but if users don’t know its there or can’t find it, it might as well have not have bothered. In this modern world you get content through apps, so discoverability starts with getting those apps from an app store. Here a clear distinction becomes visible between traditional and modern TV platforms.
On the hand there are the older, closed, tightly controlled ecosystems. Any service that wants to launch an app on these platforms, has to get in direct commercial contact with the platform owner and negotiate a contract. As a result, most of the major apps are available on these platforms, but the long tail of many smaller, niche apps is usually almost completely absent. Apps on these platforms are counted in dozens, sometimes hundreds, instead of thousands or even more. Good examples are the Samsung and LG TV app stores and the same barriers are in place if you’re trying to get a video streaming app onto an Xbox or PlayStation.
By contrast, there is a growing range of platforms with a more modern, open app store, with legal, commercial and operational models strongly based on what is usual on smartphones and tablets. Roku was the early entrant in this area, but it currently faces competition from Android TV, Amazon Fire TV and the behemoth of Apple’s app store. Microsoft has given indications of moving to a similar model of a unified Windows 10 app store on Xbox One, but details are still uncertain. These open app stores tend to contains thousands of apps. Although a significant part of these are less than stellar, the selection of lesser known high quality apps is significant enough to make this a relevant benefit above the older, closed model.
Professional Software Development Platform
An open app store will only be filled if it is easy for software developers to create the apps that have to fill it. A good software development environment depends on several characteristics, such as how widespread knowledge of the chosen programming language is and the quality of the SDK, IDE, debugging tools and documentation. Another factor of importance is how well the process of launching an app in the app store is streamlined, including speed of the app certification process and clarity of the rules and requirements that are applied.
The software development platform is an area where companies such as Apple and Google have a clear advantage, because development for their TV platforms ties closely into development for their other devices, which have very mature software development environments. This is much more difficult for companies that are traditionally not very active in software development, such as the consumer electronics brands which create most Smart TVs and have always had a focus on hardware.
With the number of apps multiplying at a staggering rate, finding content in that maze of apps becomes increasingly difficult. A feature which has been seeing widespread adoption in the last year is unified search. On many platforms, you can now use a single search functionality in the operating system to look for a certain show or movie and get a quick overview of which of the apps offer that content. Amazon was one of the first to offer this functionality, and although it received a lot of negative feedback for the limited selection of apps covered by the search service when it launched, that number has grown significantly since then. By now it’s hard to imagine a modern TV platform without it.
A related discoverability-enhancing feature is in the area of recommendations. Some TV operating systems give apps the option of recommending a few pieces of content to the user in the general operating system user interface, before the user enters the app. Android TV and Apple TV are good examples of this. It’s a very powerful mechanism to expose the user to great content without the user having to open each app separately. To get back to search for a moment, an important obstacle to making it usable is how to enter what you are looking for. That brings us to the next feature.
Entering any type of text through the arrow buttons on a TV remote control is plain simply a nightmare. Many variations of on screen keyboards have been tried, but none really work. Entering text is slow and error-prone. Text entry mainly happens in the areas of user login and search. The first was tackled long ago through solutions which display a simple connect code on your TV screen and allow you to log in with that code on a website with a more type-friendly device such as a laptop, tablet or smartphone. This works because it’s usually something you have to do only once per app, so it’s worth the effort of using a second device.
Search however is more difficult than login because of its frequent use and free format. You have to be able to enter anything you might want to search for at any time, so it has to work quickly and easily and allow for many variations. The solution turns out to be voice search.
It took a long time for speech recognition to advance sufficiently to deal with the complexities of recognising voice search queries, although the problem is simplified because it is limited to pattern matching on a clearly defined set of content. It is Amazon which deserves a compliment for being the first to roll out a decently working implementation with its original Fire TV. But the technology is fast becoming a commodity with platforms such as Roku, Android TV and Apple TV now offering the feature as well. Although voice search features are slowly evolving into more generic voice control features, it is the basic voice search which solves a real problem, by significantly reducing the need for user input through the remote control.
Good User Interface
With the content taken care off, another important characteristic of modern TV platforms is the quality of the user interface. Looking back at Smart TV user interfaces from the years around 2010, these were often not very attractive to look at, not very intuitive or performant. Correspondingly, usage was very low, with most people preferring to use other devices.
Smart TV operating systems were always the worst performers when it came to this topic. Credit has to be given to LG for being the first to improve significantly with the launch of webOS in 2014. Samsung took a step forward in 2015 with Tizen, as did Sony and Philips with Android TV and Panasonic with Firefox OS.
The current state of user interfaces is nearly on par with what any user would expect from a smartphone or tablet. The graphical design is attractive and the experience of using them is snappy and effective.
Roku, which has typically been well regarded for its simple user interface, is actually starting to fall behind a bit here, with a design which is starting to show its age compared to the competition. Perhaps a good example of the handicap of a head start.
High Quality Hardware
While you can design the most spiffy user interface imaginable, if the hardware it runs on isn’t fast enough to offer it in a smooth way, the overall user experience is still bad. Fast hardware is expensive though and various manufacturers have chosen different strategies to deal with this. The simplest strategy is that which was often chosen in Smart TVs in the past: not spending the money. As a result, for many years Smart TVs had a well deserved reputation for being slow and painful to use.
A different strategy was chosen by Roku: embracing the slowness of low cost hardware and tailoring the software running on top of it to perform even on budget-range devices. This strategy has served Roku very well over the last few years, allowing it to grab a significant market share.
More recently, as Moore’s law keeps bringing the cost of hardware down and technology giants such as Amazon, Google and Apple are becoming more active in the space, fast hardware has started to become the norm. Amazon deserves another compliment here for the hardware quality of the original Fire TV, which also set the precedent of set-top boxes being decent devices for casual console games.
Another area in which the hardware can be very distinctive is the quality of the networking options, such as a hardwired ethernet connection and 5 GHz WiFi. Very few things are more annoying while watching video than pausing for buffering. The original Chromecast suffered from such problems, so it was no surprise to see significant improvements in that area in the second generation. The same requirement of quality of the hardware also applies to the remote control. First of all there are the physical characteristics such as the chosen material, sturdiness and how it feels to the touch, but just as important is the button configuration. Compare the massive number of keys on a Smart TV remote control from a few years back to what you find on a current LG pointer remote control or the new Apple TV Siri Remote and the evolution in the direction of less is more becomes clear very quickly.
While the characteristics mentioned above are crucial, there are many more that also matter:
• International Availability: having a real shot at becoming one of the dominant modern TV platforms requires being available worldwide. This is quite doable for major consumer electronics and technology companies such as Samsung, Microsoft, Google and Apple. For more niche companies such as Roku though, this is a much larger challenge.
• Games: although not a primary requirements, the usability of a TV platform for gaming can be a differentiator from competing devices. The Xbox, PlayStation and Wii U have an obvious lead here, but half-decent gaming capabilities are also present in devices like the Amazon Fire TV and the Apple TV. Gaming will only attract a subsection of the potential user base, but in a struggle to become the dominant TV platform, it can offer one more reason to choose to buy a device over another.
• 4K / UHD / HDR: one would be justified to question how much of an improvement Ultra HD technologies really offer to the average consumer with an average TV. It is nonetheless going to become the new normal in the next few years. Any modern TV platform attempting to compete at the top level would be remiss not to support it. Take for instance the new Apple TV, of which the lack of 4K support was noted as one of the few negative points in almost all reviews. Hype or not, 4K is here to stay.
• Casting: introduced to the masses by Apple’s AirPlay and eagerly adopted by Google’s Chromecast, casting is the broadly defined concept of using an app on your smartphone, tablet or other device to pick content to play on your TV device. Although of itself a feature which relegates a capable TV platform to a mere glorified video player, casting is fast becoming such a normal use case that support for such user interaction should be part of any modern TV platform.
• HDMI Support: any new Smart TV these days could reasonably be expected to have at least three or four HDMI ports, but that can mean many things. HDMI is a broad standard with all sorts of variations and versions, for instance for external control (HDMI CEC), content protection (HDMI HDCP) or 4K content. Any high quality, modern TV platform should offer support for the most important HDMI flavours.
It is possible to go on and on, but the many features listed above give a good overall view of what should be offered by a modern TV platform. I would not expect any of the major platforms to score 10 out of 10 on in every single area and that is also not necessary for them to be competitive, but the top platforms will come quite close.
The list shows clearly how far we’ve come in just the last few years and promises many good things for the future of TV. Innovation is not likely to stop and I would expect any such list a few years from now to contain several new features which are currently not practical yet or haven’t even been thought of.
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