Making TVs smart: why most smart TVs still feel pretty dumb

Making TVs smart is a three-part series that looks at why smart TVs have failed to take off — and what needs to happen for these devices to realize their vast potential. You can read part two here and part three here.

Remember the first time you used an iPad? Chances are you were amazed, excited, ready to explore. Now contrast that with the first time you used a smart TV (if, that is, you’ve ever used one). Chances are, it didn’t feel anything like that. “I don’t think that you will find a single person who says that it’s fun to use a smart TV,” says Scott Mirer.

Mirer is Netflix’s Partner Devices Director, and his company has quietly embarked on a quest to make smart TVs better. The company hasn’t talked publicly about its efforts before, but it has started behind-the-scenes conversations with silicon makers and top consumer-electronics manufacturers to get them to improve their user interfaces, remote controls and other key components of smart TVs.

The iPad has captured our imagination - but smart TVs have not.
The iPad has captured our imagination, but smart TVs have not.

It’s long overdue. The idea of bringing internet content and technology to the living room has been around since the mid ’90s, when pioneers like WebTV Networks set out to revolutionize TV, promising to move from the hundreds of channels that you now get on cable to a world with millions of channels, without big media’s gatekeepers and with whole new ways to watch TV.  But 20 years later, the revolution still hasn’t materialized.

Smart TVs sell, but don’t work well

Sure, there have been plenty of developments with smart TVs. The bulky PC-like companion boxes of the early days gave way to TVs with the apps already baked in. Samsung, LG, Toshiba, Vizio: There’s virtually no TV maker that doesn’t have an app platform on its TV sets. Then there are the dedicated companion boxes — from companies like Roku and Apple — to turn a plain-old TV into a smart TV.

There’s also an increasing amount of content available on these platforms: Virtually every video service has apps for the major smart TV platforms to stream its content, and an increasing number of niche publishers are trying to get a foothold in the living room. Roku has some 600 apps available on its device that include everything from Netflix and Amazon to churches and Sudoku games. Samsung offers more than 1,500 apps.

But the experience for users is often painful. It’s hard to navigate around a smart TV screen — menus are often counter-intuitive, and searching anything is time-consuming because of the on-screen-keyboards — and most of the apps are simply not compelling. Remember all those half-baked CD-ROMs in the mid-90s that were little more than glorified slide shows with lots of obnoxious buttons? Now imagine someone ported that experience to the TV screen, and you’ve got your typical smart TV app.


Sales of smart TVs are decent, but that’s in large part because it’s getting harder to buy a decent TV set that doesn’t come with apps anymore. Last year, a quarter of all broadband households in the U.S. owned a TV set with apps, according to The Diffusion Group. But only 69 percent of those TVs were actually connected to the internet. Meanwhile, another survey found that fewer than half of smart TV owners were actually using those built-in apps as a primary way to bring content to the TV screen; people instead prefer to connect their PC to the TV, or even buy a dedicated companion box to watch internet content in the living room.

Even people who use their smart TVs — or, say, Roku’s media streamer or Apple’s TV box — barely access more than one or two services with it. That’s like buying a PC, only to visit a single website with it. That’s a problem, especially when you’re hoping to bring a thriving online video ecosystem to the living room. “In this part of the evolution, the TVs have been a hindrance,” John Gilles, Director of New Media at the interactive design agency Code and Theory, told me recently.

Your phone is more powerful than your TV

Gilles knows what it feels like when there is so much potential for technology to change the media world, but the technology is cumbersome. He was one of the pioneers of interactive television, which is what apps on TV used to be called before anyone called them apps.

Back in 2000, he worked for the Paul Allen-owned TechTV, and developed interactive app experiences that were deployed to traditional cable set-top boxes in seven million households. That process was pretty painful, Gilles remembers. “The set-top box was extremely underpowered.” It didn’t exactly help that cable companies liked to experiment a lot, but hardly ever shipped anything.

Your phone was cheaper than your TV, and has a much smaller screen - but a lot more processing power.
Your phone Is cheaper than your TV and has a much smaller screen — but it’s got a lot more processing power.

Thirteen years later, Gilles is still developing apps for TVs — and he’s still struggling with some of the same issues. Only now, it’s not cable boxes, but smart TVs that are underpowered because manufacturers are unwilling to spend more for better chipsets in light of razor-thin profit margins for their devices. “Your phone has a much more powerful processor than your TV,” said Gilles, adding that the experience on many current-generation smart TVs is “pale, not compelling.”

Smart TV features are merely bolted on

Netflix’s Mirer isn’t as worried about the processing power of smart TVs. Yes, phones have been getting more powerful more quickly. But Netflix has found that it can do a lot with a little, he told me, in part by optimizing for each of the many devices it is running on. “We want our app to run on devices that are highly affordable,” Mirer said, and it doesn’t always help to simply throw more processing power at the problem.

Instead, he said, it’s time for TV manufacturers to rethink their TV sets with connectivity in mind. “TVs were really optimized for linear TV” before manufacturers started to add apps four or five years ago. Then came YouTube, Netflix and others, and some of the manufacturers started to add app platforms to their devices. “But the TVs themselves are not that different,” argued Mirer. “They are really still old-style linear TVs with some network feature bolted on.”

Your computer has a standby mode, but your TV doesn't - and that's a problem.
Your computer has a standby mode, but your TV doesn’t, and that’s a problem.

To illustrate some of the shortcomings, Mirer gave me the following example: When using an iPad, a mobile phone or even a laptop, turning it off will put it into standby mode. Turn it back on, and you’re right where you left off. But turn off your TV, and it’s off for good.

The absence of any kind of sleep mode not only makes it harder to get back to the online video you started watching before you had to turn your TV off, it also makes it impossible for third-party services or devices to seamlessly interact with your TV. Sure, you can stream from your iPad to your TV. But first, you have to scramble to find your TV remote, turn on the device and then switch the HDMI input to make your Apple TV work.

Netflix pushes TV makers to up their game

That’s why Netflix has begun to talk to manufacturers to push them towards rethinking their smart TV products. Adding on-screen navigation that makes it easier to find and launch apps. Adding a real sleep mode that can be controlled by tablets and other devices through low-power wireless standards. And simplifying remote controls. These are some of the key areas of focus. “The remote control hasn’t really adapted to an online-centric use case,” said Mirer.

The remote control has not been adapted to an online-centric use case, says Netflix Partner Devices Director Scott Mirer.
TVs have started to evolve, but their remote controls have largely stayed the same.

Some manufacturers are starting to understand that they can get fatter margins if their smart TVs are better. But getting them to change their products is still a slow process. Mirer estimates that we are about five years in to a 10-year cycle, with the beginning of that cycle being the first time that smart TV apps popped up on connected Blu-ray players and the end being the industry completely embracing this new technology.

Part of that lag is due to manufacturers’ long development and shipping cycles, but it’s also because some of the new technology runs counter to the very notions that people in consumer electronics hold dear. TV manufacturers like to lock down a set of features and then test them thoroughly before going to market — something that doesn’t really work with smart TV user interfaces that need to be changed on the fly even after owners have unboxed their new sets. And remote controls are often designed by committee, leading to an overload of shortcuts to features no one really needs.

It may take four, five, six Netflixes

But there’s another reason why smart TVs are struggling: People just don’t know what to do with them. There’s Netflix, and some people also watch YouTube or Hulu Plus, or stream Pandora on their TVs.

But other than that, not many apps have gained significant traction. That’s a problem, Gilles says. “We need to have four, five, six other experiences that are as compelling as Netflix to see that adoption really increase.”

Sports could be a smart TV killer app.
Sports could be a smart TV killer app.

In other words: Smart TVs need more killer apps. Reasons that make you want to go out and buy a connected TV, as opposed to just getting connectivity as an add-on that you may not even use. Sports could one such reason, with leagues pushing out additional content to smart TV apps. Microsoft is going to start doing just that with the Xbox One later this year. Competitive reality TV could be another great use case, with people not just voting but possibly even joining parts of the competition from their couch.

But there may also be programming that goes the other way: hyper-personalized in a way that wouldn’t be possible with a traditional TV. Imagine a workout channel that connects you directly to your personal trainer, who is able to give you feedback thanks to a built-in webcam. “It won’t look anything like TV,” Gilles predicted.

iPad image courtesy of Flickr user bfishadow. Smart phone image courtesy of Flickr user Stephane <3. Power button image courtesy of Flickr user mnapoleon. Remote control photo courtesy of Flickr user Walt Stoneburner. Baseball image courtesy of Flickr user bradleygee.