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State of the Union: Smart TVs, Stupid Content Issues

For years now so-called experts have been crowing about how the world is going to turn more and more to “cord cutting,” the act of getting rid of your cable or satellite subscription and only watching what the Internet can deliver to you.  This has been a wonderful dream, but even as recently as 2008, when I wrote an article about solutions out there at the time, it has not been easy for the average viewer to get online content to their television set.  In most instances a computer was involved in the setup, making the whole process just too cumbersome and complicated for most.

More recently, things have begun to shift at a tremendous rate. But the question remains if the recent surge in Interent TV is enough to cause a tipping point in the industry to where we can finally say goodbye to those inflated monthly content bills for good.

TVs with Streaming Solutions Built-in (AKA Smart TVs)

Smart TV - Back Panel

The idea that TVs now come with Ethernet ports and Wi-Fi capabilities is a bit mind blowing to me.  Being someone that used to run cables and rigged contraptions from here to there just so I could watch a YouTube video on my television, the idea that I can now just hit a button and see watch Netflix, or check out the latest funny cat video is, well, a bit mind blowing to me.  This is the”revolution” that had been promised for years, but failed to materialize time and time again.  Now when you walk into an electronics store and see Pandora and Twitter and so many other familiar logos plastered on the bank of TVs, it feels a bit like you’ve truly stepped into the future.

There is, however, still one major hurdle to be overcome in this arena, and that is how you interact with the television.  As it stands right now, the majority of Smart TVs ask you to type in search terms, Tweets and so on by using your remote like the old “T9” flip phone texting system.  It’s cumbersome, annoying and most people don’t want to deal with it.  Samsung has started including QWERTY keyboard remotes with some of their TVs – and will even sell you one for your older models for $100 – but until this becomes the standard instead of the exception, people are still going to be reluctant to turn to Smart TV as their primary source of online content delivery.

Smartphones and tablets are now becoming a part of the mix with applications that turn your devices into makeshift remotes.  While this is an intriguing route for the TV manufacturers to take, these devices are awkward to hold compared to the traditional remote.  And while app-based solutions will make do as additions to a standard remote, do you really want to go find your iPad just to send a Tweet from your TV?  As with everything to do with the Internet and television, it seems inevitable that “solutions” eventually come along to complicate the works.

Set Top Boxes and Other External Solutions

Roku Streaming Stick

For those who missed out on getting a TV with Internet connectivity built in, there are a plethora of choices out there for you.  The majority of them do offer multiple ways to connect to your TV such as HDMI and component cables, but if you’ve don’t have a modern HDTV in most cases you will be out of luck.  External Internet solutions are pretty much the playground of those with the latest (i.e. past five years or so) in TV technology.  There are workarounds out there such as RF converters, but then you are getting back to the previously mentioned problem of too many parts.  People want simplicity when it comes to their televisions, not a ton of gadgets sitting around it.

And this brings us to the other issue with external solutions. Most consumers have bought flat panel TVs based not only on features, but also on aesthetics. If you’ve hung your television on the wall, do you really want multiple cables running up to it, creating a spaghetti tangle of wires cascading down your wall?  No, you want as a few wires as possible. Yes, more than likely you’re going to want a Blu-ray player hooked up to your TV, and if it has Internet-connected apps on it you may be able to kill two birds with one stone.  The issue here, however, is that the number of Net services on a Blu-ray player is often limited, and you may not find the exact mix that you’re looking for. (I.E. A player has built-in Blockbuster instead of Netflix, but it’s the only one you’re looking at that offers Hulu Plus.)

The Roku brand of set top boxes has been a market leader for a few years now, and the announcement of the Roku Streaming Stick is an exciting one: No cables, no extra remote, you just plug it into an HDMI port and you never have to look at it again.  While this is great, as Roku offers one of the most robust selections of online content in the industry, the issue with the Streaming Stick is that it only works with HDMI ports that feature Mobile High-Definition Link (MHL) technology, something that is just now appearing in TV sets. If you bought a top of the line 3D TV set even just a year ago, you aren’t going to have MHL, and that means you can’t use this major leap forward in external streaming technology.

Content is King

Netflix - Wii

Even with all of these solutions, there is still the issue of not everything you want to watch is available when and how you want it.  Take the NBC series Harry’s Law. While it’s available via Hulu Plus on computers, it isn’t an option via Hulu Plus on the Roku. This is an inconveniences and annoyance as my entire family watches the show, and we don’t want to huddle around the computer to view it. HBO Go, a service only accessible to subscribers of HBO’s cable network, has a laundry list of odd restrictions. For instance, the HBO Go iPad app can’t be output to a TV via HDMI, but the Roku version of the app can, but not with the same cable providers verifying as on the mobile app. (i.e. if you’re like me and have DirecTV, you can only watch the content on the iPad with no way to get it to the TV via HDMI using either option) Blame licensing issues fror all of the above.

And don’t even get me started on CBS and their lackluster streaming options.

Even the most established streaming solutions in the U.S. such as Netflix Watch Instantly and Hulu Plus are missing key shows, or sometimes are limited in how many back episodes of a series they can present to you. Don’t get me wrong, there is a ton of programming to watch out there, but it’s not always what you were initially looking for.

Conclusion

I don’t think the Utopia some have imagined – a Utopia in which all TV is delivered for free over the Internet, without piracy – will ever emerge.  Writers, directors and actors will always need to get paid to produce the shows you watch, and until a tipping point comes after which online audiences surpass those of traditional broadcast, the ad revenues just aren’t going to be there for that to happen. So we’re left with networks and broadcasters who are reluctant to go full speed at online content delivery. In the process they are also causing frustrations for end users that could potentially keep that tipping point from ever arriving. If the content users desire isn’t there, they could very well walk away from streaming TV, or, even worse, never give it a try.

Smart TVs and streaming content and aren’t in any danger of going away right now. But living up to their true potential is a definite question mark in my eyes.


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Sean P. Aune

Sean P. Aune has been a professional technology blogger since July 2007, but his love of tech dates back to at least 1976 when his parents bought...Sean P. Aune has been a professional technology blogger since July 2007, but his love of tech dates back to at least 1976 when his parents bought...


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