As we’ve covered quite a bit over at NewTeeVee, new capabilities are coming to your TV sets, thanks to the built-in Internet connections they’ll be sporting this year. Broadband TVs are already trickling into the market, but they’ll kick off in earnest this holiday season as manufacturers from Vizio, Samsung, LG and more pack their TVs with gew-gaws. We’ll get our first sense of how interested in widget-enabled TVs consumers are this Black Friday, when select models go on sale.
GigaOM Pro analyst Michael Wolf asked the question earlier this year, “Will TV Ever Get its App Store Moment?” With televisions in 98.9 percent of U.S. homes, TVs are ripe for app-a-tizing, and consumers may already be primed to do more with their TVs than just watch them; early research from TDG indicates that, 76 percent of consumers thought having a widget toolbar on their TV would be valuable (though, to be fair, only 28 percent said it would be “extremely valuable”). Apple has proven that if you create a compelling platform, developers will go all kinds of crazy to whip up truly innovative apps (augmented reality, anyone?). But even with potential demand building, there are a few things that the TV manufacturers, widget platform makers and developers need to consider before this space can truly take off.
The Discoverability Issue
The influx of widgets will carry with it the same problem the influx of video choices on your TV will: finding what you want. Those involved with TV widgets would do well to learn from the iPhone App Store, which has become inundated with cheap apps. Useful content must be easy to discover. TV widget platforms will need to make sure their contents are organized for a 10-foot experience. That means on-screen option hierarchies will need to be easy to follow and navigate from the couch, creating browsable categories that are quickly and already understood (e.g. around genres, release dates, most popular content, etc.). This is a lean-back experience, not a lean-forward one. When consumers are in front of a TV, they want to relax, not work.
Discoverability will also be limited by input methods. Viewers will be force to rely, at least early in the game, on the up, down, left, right buttons on their remotes to find what they are looking for. Vizio has a remote with the QWERTY keyboard built in, but Yahoo relies on the on-screen keyboard if users want to type in a search query, and on-screen keyboards requiring that each letter be punched in individually are clunky. As Wolf pointed out in his earlier piece, the app platforms could be transferred from the TV to game consoles like the Xbox 360. The Xbox controller does sport a text pad for easier data entry, but the more hardware you add to the mix, the more complicated the process gets, which defeats the convenience of having an app right on your TV.
As user interfaces and remotes evolve to handle the myriad of new choices (think: gesture control), this problem will be mitigated, but until then, the onus is on the platforms to lay out their widgets in a clear manner.
The TV is Not the PC
Widget platforms and developers will have to keep in mind the differences in hardware platforms. The TV is a different beast than the PC. As such, desktop widgets and web applications can’t just be re-skinned for a big screen. Some widgets that work great on a PC might not work that well on a TV. A few examples that come to mind are Facebook and Twitter widgets. In our early tests here at GigaOM, we’ve found that while sharing Facebook photos on the TV is pretty great, we may not want a steady stream of updates from our (less than tactful) friends blaring across the screen during a show (especially with the family watching).
This extends to how other information interacts with on-screen content. For example, someone who plays fantasy sports may want instant updates on their TV screen during the game, but they don’t want that information blocking the action. Widgets have to elegantly integrate their additional features into the context of what we are watching.
Take a Page From Mobile’s Playbook
Finally, widgets will need to get as creative for the TV as they are for mobile. Rather than just plucking weather info and stock quotes, TV widgets should be woven into the fabric of what we are watching. Watching “Star Wars”? Widgets should be able to tell you what other movies Mark Hamil was in, and give you the option of alerting you (or recording them) next time he’s on TV (assuming you’re a fan). Another widget might connect with my PC to push links for further reading on a particular topic to take advantage of the two-screen experience. Or there could be a widget that ties into an online gaming network to alert the couch potato when a friend wants to play Halo.
But while developers should look to the mobile market for inspiration, they need to recognize that many people will probably have their mobile smart phones near them as they watch TV. Rather than making redundant widgets, learn what works best for delivery to the phone, and what works best staying on the TV (or how the two can intersect).
The opportunity for developers is large; there are more TVs in houses than people in the U.S., and the average American spent 141 hours per month watching television. That’s a huge, captive audience. These challenges for TV as an app platform can certainly be overcome, but in the rush of excitement to colonize a new technology, the widget ecosystem should press pause and figure out the limitations and opportunities the TV brings before moving forward.
Chris Albrecht is the Co-Editor of NewTeeVee.