The coming living room OS war

There was a time when the biggest decisions TV OEMs had to make were about the visible features of a set: how big a screen, plasma vs. LCD, 1080 vs. 720.

With the arrival of the first generation of web-enabled TVs, manufacturers have had to start thinking about what software to embed in their sets: their own, proprietary apps platform, standards-based platforms like Yahoo Connected TV, or perhaps cloud-based platforms like ActiveVideo’s Cloud TV.

As expectations grow for what a TV set can do and deliver, however, OEMs will soon be faced with the prospect of needing to embed robust and fully upgradable operating systems in what were once merely dumb displays, so that the devices they are selling  can keep up with the pace of development of new software and services aimed at the living room.

The proliferation of TV apps platforms has caused its share of headaches for developers, who are forced to undertake additional coding to make sure their apps work on as many devices as possible. But at the International CES in Las Vegas this week (and in the continued speculation about the TV intentions of CES no-show Apple) there were signs that the industry is heading for a more profound fragmentation as the definition of a “smart” TV evolves from web-enabled to multipurpose and upgradable.

Android

After a false start at last year’s CES, Google TV made a strong showing at this year’s show, with TVs and Blu-ray players from Vizio, Sony and LG and public support from Samsung, which said it would launch a Google TV–powered set later this year but did not have it on display at CES.

Unlike the first-generational Google TV, which was essentially just a browser and search engine for the TV, the latest version is much more integrated with the Android platform, making Google TV more of an OS than simply a browser or apps platform. For Google the TV represents another class of devices it can bring into the Android ecosystem, but for set makers, it means making sure the silicon and other components in their TVs will be able to cope with new features and capabilities introduced through Android updates, such as the enhanced content-sharing features introduced in Android 4.0.

Some OEMs, in fact, are already doing Google TV one better. At CES, Lenovo showed off an Android-powered smart TV that eschews the Google TV platform in favor of Lenovo’s own custom build of the Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) OS. As an open platform, Android is highly susceptible to fragmentation, as Amazon demonstrated by creating a proprietary customized version of the OS for the Kindle Fire. If TV makers follow that path it could make life difficult for developers.

Windows 8

While Microsoft made no overt moves toward the TV set at CES, it is clearly an entrant in the living room OS sweepstakes. Microsoft has spent the past year transforming the Xbox 360 console into a full-service entertainment hub, adding a growing list of content services to the Xbox Live platform, including live, linear TV. With more than 15 million Xbox Live subscribers in the U.S. and nearly 40 million worldwide, Microsoft now boasts the largest, more comprehensive OTT platform of any major provider.

At the same time, cross-pollination between the Xbox platform and Microsoft’s broader Windows ecosystem is increasing, including the unveiling at CES of the new Kinect for PC device and Kinect for Windows SDK to bring the Xbox gesture-control interface to Windows devices.

In December, Microsoft unveiled a new dashboard for the Xbox 360 based on the Metro interface introduced with Windows Phone 7 and poised to be the UI for Windows 8. Whether or not Microsoft introduces a new generation game console this year that runs Windows 8 — as many have speculated — it is putting in place the pieces of a strategy to allow developers to create applications that will run on Windows 8 PCs, tablets and smartphones and can easily be ported to the living room.

Linux

The most unexpected living room OS development at CES was Canonical’s demonstration of Ubuntu TV, a Linux-based OS for connected TVs with an interface derived from Canonical’s Unity interface for PCs. As with any programmable OS, Ubuntu TV would allow OEMs and developers to create a limitless variety of new types of applications to run on the TV.

While Ubuntu TV is still a work in progress and there were no hardware partnerships announced at CES, many CE devices already run some version of Linux, including most DVRs, meaning CE makers are already familiar with the platform. That could make Linux a strong dark-horse challenger to Android, Windows and, presumably, iOS as the dominating operating system for the integrated digital living room.

Choosing an embedded apps platform is an important decision for TV makers. But the differences between competing platforms ultimately are bridgeable, and most popular apps quickly become available on all major platforms.

As anyone familiar with the very different worlds of Windows and Mac for PCs, or iOS and Android for mobile devices, knows, choosing an OS can lock a device maker into a single and distinct ecosystem of applications, developers and device compatibility. That’s going to be a very different experience for TV OEMs, with yet unforeseeable implications for the market for TVs and TV services.

Question of the week

Who is best positioned to win the living room OS race?
Relevant Analyst
Sweeting

Paul Sweeting

Principal Concurrent Media Strategies

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