The Future of TV Can Bet on “Apps Everywhere”


TV apps will soon be “everywhere.” That was the consensus at a recent GigaOM Bunker session on how much a role apps will play in the future of the digital video industry. But how the market will develop, and which TV platforms will win out, has yet to be decided.

“Everyone will want to offer a platform; you name it, there will be an app or a widget platform,” Roy Satterthwaite, SVP of Americas for Opera, said at the event. Recent research from GigaOm Pro backs that claim up; we forecast that revenues from TV apps are expected to grow to $1.4 billion by 2014, from an estimated $10 million this year.

Innovation vs. the Consumer Experience

Video publishers and major media firms are understandably excited about the opportunity. But to successfully capitalize on this burgeoning market, all parties will have to strike a delicate balance between innovation and existing consumer behavior. As Chuck Seiber, vice president of marketing for Roku, said, embedding apps in the TV goes against “60 years of ingrained habits for watching TV.”

App developers, too, must consider this. Matt Milne, EVP and General Manager for DivX, noted at the event that technology firms tend to create technology for technology’s sake, without considering how it will make sense from a consumer perspective. “At some point, we would love to turn this discussion to the consumer, you know, the people that actually pay with real money for the things that we do,” he said. “As technology companies, we tend to saturate the market, but just because something worked on the iPad or the iPhone, we try to make it work on the TV. But the TV is a different experience.”

Why? For one thing, the TV provides far more screen real estate for app developers to experiment with. But while the larger screen size might suggest a playground of endless possibilities for developers, connected TVs pose their own limitations — particularly where the consumer is concerned. Lack of search and discoverability tools on the TV interface, uncertainty about the input device and a 15-year old programming grid that’s difficult to navigate all present their own challenges when it comes to a broader adoption of TV apps.

Replacing the Remote

The question of how users will interact with TV applications is a prescient one; as every channel-surfer knows, the modern remote control is not up to the task of navigating 200 channels of video content, let alone the vast amount of online content that continues to make its way to the living room. But what will replace current remote controls is unclear.

Panelists at the event seemed divided on whether remote control keyboards were the answer or if mobile devices are poised to become the navigation tool of choice. Using either will enable users to input text for search and discoverability, something that is today hampered by the up-down-left-right nature of today’s remote controls.

There are also technologies such as Microsoft’s voice- and-gesture-based Kinect control system, which lets Xbox Live users control TV playback through hand gestures. As GigaOM Pro analyst Paul Sweeting noted in a recent report, “gesture control, if perfected, could help overcome what is likely to be a major hurdle to broad consumer adoption of web-to-TV services.”

Voice control was a possibility mentioned by an attendee at the Bunker event as well. Kathleen McMahon, vice president of sales and marketing for SoundHound, suggested that voice recognition software has gotten good enough that users might soon be able to speak search terms into their phones to find programming they want on the TV.

HTML5: The Perfect Platform?

Another aspect of TV apps developers must consider is which platform to create for. Today, there are a number of consumer electronics manufacturers entering the TV app space, each with its own software development kit and framework for developing those apps. The problem for developers comes in choosing between all those platforms.

“Who’s going to win? I don’t think that’s going to be answered for quite a while. We don’t yet know what it means for all of these devices to interact. It will be a lot of time to see how this will shake out,” said Paul Stathacoupoulos, director of product management at Rovi.

That said, some of the attendees provided a clue as to where the industry may be headed. While some CE manufacturers require developers to create “one-off” apps that can only be used for a specific platform, others are adopting HTML5 and other web standards that developers can reuse between applications.

David Hyman, CEO of music streaming service MOG, said that his company will only develop for HTML5-supported devices going forward, rather than having to develop a number of one-off apps. “When you develop for lots of platforms, you’re constantly battling with the issue of prioritizing resources. At this point we’re just betting on HTML5,” Hyman said.

Bowing to developer interest, CE manufacturers are increasingly moving to HTML5 as well, with Samsung, Roku, Google TV and Boxee all enabling apps to be built primarily with the new web standard in mind. That fact just might provide a huge clue as to where TV apps — and the future of the living room — are headed.

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