What will we be watching in 2020?

What will the next decade hold for television? By the time you read this, the CES show will have passed, and where better to get a view of the future? No doubt CES will have given some inkling as to where we are heading.

Television today has not changed much since the late 1940s, when the NTSC developed the first color standard. It's migrated from analog to digital, and increased in resolution, but many of the basic business and consumer aspects have evolved little.

I will be surprised if I can make that statement 10 years hence. Stereoscopic 3-D waits in the wings, mobile TV is slowing rolling out, and I presume by then that the connected home will be a reality and that all the issues of managing content protection across multiple platforms will be resolved.

There are many signs now that the change away from the old model is accelerating. Platforms like YouTube are disruptive, as is mobile viewing. The younger generation, brought up using social networking to share media, have different attitudes about audiovisual entertainment. And yet this generation still represents a big percentage of cinema audiences, a technology that predates television by decades.

The viewing of entertainment has split into two modes, often called lean back and lean forward. Traditional viewing, lean back, was passive and could be enjoyed by a group of people, a family for example. The lean-forward mode is different in that it is interactive; this generally means that only one viewer can participate. The lack of a return path for conventional television has naturally excluded the device from interactive use. The first interactivity was via cable, but some of the latest batch of receivers sport an Internet port. That means the television receiver can now emulate functions that were once reserved for the PC, game console or smartphone.

Over-the-air transmissions are under constant threat. Television can no longer assume the right to a large slab of the spectrum under 1GHz, as new demands are growing year by year. One only has to look at the recent issues of wireless spectrum congestion as the use of smartphones has mushroomed.

Satellite transmission is a good way to reach a large territory in one hit, but it lacks interactivity without a separate return path. Cable television has been joined by fiber to the home, and IP delivery looks to be the norm for all but a few refuseniks who hang on to terrestrial transmissions.

However, not all televisions are fixed (tethered to an outdoor antenna or dish). The small portable with rabbit ears has always been popular for secondary viewing. And it is not hooked up to the cable or fiber system. The loss of conventional terrestrial transmissions would badly impact this viewing market. Such devices could possibly receive television via WiFi from a home media gateway/server or the soup of RF data that pervades public spaces, but would that be the same?

Another question to be resolved over the next decade is how to provide technical support at an affordable fee for a complex, multivendor home network. In a home network, there may be several content protection schemes (DRM and CA) and several content feeds (cable, satellite and Internet) — all from different operators. When Joe Public finds he can't download to a smartphone and then view the clip from a car seat back TV, to whom does he turn? A real connected home is going to require self-healing systems that can be used by those outside the geek community as well as smart help systems. Is that ever going to happen? Or will users be locked into their chosen CE vendor?

It is in the interest of vendors and service providers to make the operation of tomorrow's viewing systems as simple as the TV receiver of the past. Based on my experiences with the current round of products, there's a way to go before that happens.

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