Europe traditionally lags behind the U.S., and often the Far East, in embracing new technology, but there are signs this trend is being bucked in the case of smart TVs, just as it was for 3G mobile telephony. It is true the U.S. led the way into the disruptive world of OTT with Netflix in particular, but until recently at least pay TV operators were able to dismiss this as a minor irritation rather than a major threat.
But now Europe is leading a new wave of Internet-connected video based this time on smart TVs rather than PCs. This is a much bigger threat to the status quo, because it involves delivery of full broadcast quality HD content, and furthermore with the potential for enriching the service with apps that pay TV operators may not have. In short, this is an assault on the traditional pay TV model not from start-up OTT service providers but major established CE vendors such as Sony, Panasonic, Samsung and LG. They do not want to be sidelined as mere monitor providers in the connected TV world but want to make the TV set an integral part of the service, rather as mobile handsets such as the iPhone have become for cellular services.
Europe has proved the most receptive market for this strategy so far, with Samsung reporting that three European countries, France followed by Germany then Spain, have accounted between them for 40 percent of all downloads from its smart TV App store.
However, operators are fighting back, with Europe perhaps becoming a test ground for the emerging conflict with smart TVs. Indeed, the most tangible evidence of Europe's OTT advance however has been provided by French IPTV and broadband operator Iliad with its Free TV service, which has put all the smarts into an STB and router combination called the Freebox Revolution. The STB is based on the Intel Atom processor, the first versions of which were designed with netbooks and other portable devices in mind, combining reasonably high performance with miniaturization and low power, but most crucially opening up the box to the entire apps developer community by supporting the Linux operating system among other things. It brings STB and smart TV fully into the world of IT alongside PCs and mobile handsets, and it is no surprise that many smart TVs from Sony and others are powered by the Atom.
At any rate, the Freebox Revolution revitalised Iliad's previously flagging IPTV service, which attracted 154,000 new customers in the first quarter of 2011, its best ever three-month period. France is well known as the world leader in IPTV with around 10 million subscribers, and so its public represents a good target for smart TV services. But elsewhere in Europe there is also a receptiveness to smart TV, partly because many people have become familiar with accessing premium content online through various Internet-based catch-up services such as BBC iPlayer in the UK. Now the rest of Europe, led by Germany and France, are pushing ahead with online TV platforms delivering both on demand and catch-up content based on the HbbTV (Hybrid Broadcast Broadband TV) standard. HbbTV is a major new pan-European initiative aimed at harmonising the broadcast and broadband delivery of entertainment to the consumer through connected TVs and STBs. But the desired harmony is not breaking out everywhere, with the YouView consortium in the UK adopting a different standard for its online platform involving the BBC, incumbent telco BT and others.