The Death of Dumb Smart-TV Apps

The Smart TV Alliance is on a mission, and its goal is to design an operating system that makes users (finally) happy with their built-in smart-TV apps.
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Unboxing a new TV is an exciting process, hooking up digital cable, satellite services, Tivo, Apple TV, Chromecast, Google TV, Xbox 360/Xbox One, PS3/PS4 or any number of other hardware options allow a large selection of video content apps. But what if you just used the apps that came with your TV? You normally wouldn't. Because they are slow, badly built and well..pretty dumbed down. The Smart TV Alliance is on a mission, and its goal is to make you (finally) happy with your built-in smart-TV apps. Get ready for a new smart-TV app OS.

Mobile TV on a smartphone has a distinct advantage in that there are only a handful of operating systems that developers have to worry about. Android and iOS lead by a wide margin, with options such as Windows Mobile and Blackberry struggling with distant single-digit market shares. So if a developer, say Netflix or HBO, wanted to build a video app, they could build for one or two mobile platforms and connect with millions of users. On smart TVs however, the options are much different.

Almost all smart TVs share fragmentation for operating systems. Manufacturers such as Sony, LG, Panasonic and others are focused on the core user experience of how the TV operates, as well as the development of the actual hardware. Apps are almost always part of the scenario, and almost always there is little to no consistency as new models emerge. User interfaces and menus could, and do, change from model to model, year to year. Many TV manufacturers start with clean slates for new TVs, discarding the entire interface from the previous model. This can lead to a new learning curve for different sets. Love the interface and apps for one TV, well, it could be completely different when you buy a slightly newer model.

Another issue is there is almost always little consistency for multi-screen integration for mobile apps. Part of the fun of having a smartphone is that it allows you to interface and interact with other hardware devices. Some TV manufacturers will focus on syncing with their own phone brands, but may leave others in the dust.

Perhaps the most important issue is optimization. With no unified operating system, Smart TV apps have been traditionally a little pokey and sluggish. Most TVs don’t have beefy processors like smartphones, and with no unified OS and SDK to fine tune, optimization of apps remains an unfulfilled target.

The Smart TV Alliance is setting out to change all that. Not unlike the consortium alliance Dyle, which set out to bring consistent branding and hardware support for OTA broadcasts via mobile devices, the Smart TV Alliance wants to create a consistent development platform based around apps. Formed last year, the group’s mission is to simplify the Smart TV application developer go-to-market process. Typically a TV manufacturer will produce a set and then reach out to content providers, teaming up to produce an app to deliver their services. Sometimes the apps would be developed in house and sometimes they would be created by the producers. The Smart TV Alliance wants to create a framework where an app developer creates an app once, and it can run on any TV, not unlike the current smartphone app marketplace. Handy of course for big leaguers like Netflix, but this may also allow smaller content providers to get into the mix, developing an app and deploying it to dozens of TV models and brands.

Support has been growing, the group now has alliances with Panasonic, IBM, ABOX42, TechniSat, Warner Brothers, Toshiba, Realtek, LG, Opera Software, Dolby, Qualcomm, Vestel, Xumo, Yume and many others. This past week, the group launched a new Developer Support Program. The new system allows software teams to submit their apps through a single approval system. Once approved, the app can be deployed to all alliance-compatible TV sets. There is a new 2.5 SDK that allows multiple-screen integration with mobile apps, and it has announced the road map for SDK 3.0 to include UltraHD 4K TVs, as well as home automation. Integration for HTML5, CSS3, JavaScript, 3D video, MPEG-DASH, DRM and other options shows that the Alliance means business, and is focused on wide-ranging support for current standards.

A unified Smart-TV operating system? Or at least compatible apps? It might just work. Of course the key is getting everyone on board. Other manufacturers continue to swim in their own direction. Sony, for example, is leaning toward Google TV, it’s made several (not too successful) swings at integrating its ecosystem with Google’s TV solution. The elephant in the room many be the smallest to notice: the dongle. Companies such as Roku and Google, with its new Chromecast, are betting on small devices around the size of a USB thumb drive. The future may be fragmented, but it should get a lot easier, as users will have the option to merely pop a dongle into a free HDMI port and get dozens of apps delivering thousands of hours of content. However, the easiest operating system is the one that you don’t have to worry about. If the Smart TV Alliance can continue to gain traction and alliances, and prove that a unified method of app submission and deployment is an effective counter again fragmentation, then there is a great chance that Smart TVs will be getting even smarter in the future.