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State of the Union: Mobile & Television in Britain

Mobile & TV in Britain

Overview

You’ve probably already read the State of the Union Addresses from my fellow Buffalos — and if you haven’t, you certainly should — but mine’s a little different. As TechnoBuffalo’s resident Brit, I’m going to be taking a look at the state of mobile devices and television here in Britain and how it compares to that of the United States.

Of course, in many ways, they are both the same. It doesn’t matter which side of the Atlantic you’re on, the evolution of the mobile phone has been identical. Our devices have become thinner and lighter — but not necessarily smaller — and more intelligent. They handle a whole range of tasks that you wouldn’t have dreamt of completing on a handheld device a decade ago.

And much the same can be said about the television. Our favorite invention no longer takes up a third of our living room. We have 60-inch screens that sit nicely up against our walls, displaying high-definition 3D pictures so clear that they make real life look a little dull. But they don’t just display pictures anymore; they also connect to the Internet and offer us a lifetime of movies, music, and TV shows for just a few pounds — or dollars — a month.

But while both the U.S. and the U.K. boast thriving consumer electronics markets offering the latest and greatest innovations, there are some subtle differences between the two with regards to hardware, content, and the way in which we pay for these things. Let’s start with that first one.

Hardware

Mobile phones have evolved into something really incredible. Not only are they more graceful than ever before (mostly), but they come packing specifications capable of powering a desktop computer. They feature cameras that make point-and-shoots look unnecessary, and they handle all sorts of tasks that you just didn’t think a handheld device would be capable of a decade ago.

In the U.K., we typically have one or two iterations of each device that are capable of running on all of our 3G networks. Take the Samsung Galaxy S II, for example. We have just one handset, available in two colors. In the U.S., however, there are so many versions of the Galaxy S II that I’ve lost count.

Galaxy S II US family

The main reason for this is 4G LTE capabilities. In the U.K. we don’t have the luxury of speedy LTE networks, so we don’t need slightly different versions of the same devices suited to each carrier. But that could change over the next few years as 4G networks begin to make their debut here in Britain.

Putting the differences between LTE devices aside, hardware for both the U.S. and the U.K. is largely the same — at least from the big manufacturers. Though there are a few devices that remain exclusive to each country. The Android-powered San Francisco smartphone, for example, which is built by ZTE exclusively for Orange in the U.K.

In many ways, the television has followed the same trends as the phone. It has become thinner — but not smaller — and far more advanced. Televisions don’t just offer us movies and TV shows anymore. We now have “Smart TVs” that connect to our home networks and run a whole host of applications to provide us with content streaming, news and weather feeds, Facebook and Twitter clients, web browsers, and more.

Once again, the hardware is much the same — at least on the outside. Though, there are a couple of differences. The first one you’ll notice if you bring an American TV to the U.K. is that it won’t plug in to our power outlets, because it employs a different plug.

It also won’t play European content, which uses the PAL format, as opposed to NTSC. This is also because of the difference in power. U.K. TVs display content at 50 hertz, while those in the U.S. display at 60 hertz.

Content

Here in the U.K., terrestrial TV — better known to those in the U.S. as broadcast television — is all but dead. You need a digital TV tuner to pickup “Freeview,” or a satellite dish to pick up “Freesat” if you want to enjoy free TV. Though some would argue that in order to get a good selection of channels, you need to subscribe to satellite or cable services from the likes of Sky and Virgin Media, which incur a monthly fee.

LG Smart TV

These paid subscriptions are necessary for things like 3D television, recent movies, and sports. Though some sports — such as World Cup matches and FA Cup finals — are shown on free channels.

But thanks to services such as BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, and TVCatchup, you no longer need a TV to watch TV. It’s now possible to catch up with your favorite programs — and even watch them live — on your smartphone, tablet, or PC.

In the U.S. things are much the same, though the government has subsidized some of the cost of picking up a digital terrestrial TV tuner for those not interested in subscribing to cable/satellite or purchasing a newer TV with an integrated digital tuner. If you’ve got relatively fast Internet service, you can watch shows on your smartphone, tablet, or PC, though content deals between big studios and cable providers limit the use of services like HBO GO and ESPN3 to those subscribing to approved service packages. And then there’s Netflix. You Yanks just love your Netflix! The service just landed on our side of the pond a few weeks ago, but so far it’s no match for Amazon’s Lovefilm service — at least not with regards to content selection.

The way in which we enjoy content on our mobile phones is much the same in the U.K. as it is in the U.S., and in both territories, this is slowly changing. It seems streaming services such as Spotify and Netflix are becoming more popular, with users signing up to stream “borrowed” content from the cloud, rather than purchasing it outright and syncing it to their device.

And the same can be said about other content, such as documents, and even device backups. We are increasingly relying on services like Dropbox, iCloud, and SkyDrive to look after our precious data in “the cloud.” And of course, there are downsides to this. Without our data stored locally, we have no control over its safety, and we trust these services to ensure it is protected. But the upside to that is that when our local storage solutions decide to give up on us, we know we haven’t lost our data.

The Cost

While Luther Vandross once proclaimed that “the best things in life are free,” he obviously wasn’t referring to consumer technology, which very rarely costs us nothing. While the content we consume on our devices can be obtained for free in many ways, the devices themselves have to be paid for.

You may think your smartphone was free because you paid nothing up-front for it when you picked it up at the store. But your carrier ensures that device is paid for over the term of your contract. In the U.K., we currently have a choice between 12-, 18-, and 24-month contracts, though the latter is becoming increasingly popular as it’s the cheapest way to get your hands on the latest devices. Single-year contracts are slowly being phased out, with the latest devices unavailable with anything less than an 18-month commitment.

In the U.S. this has already happened. Carriers no longer offer 12-month contracts and new customers are usually subjected to a minimum commitment of two years. The only way to dodge this is to stump up the cash for a SIM-free handset and choose to go with a prepaid plan.

What’s interesting about prepaid plans is that they seem to be becoming less popular in the U.K., with the carriers luring new customers into contracts with the promise of cheaper calls, texts, and data; and the latest handsets at a fraction of the cost. In the U.S., however, prepaid is becoming more popular as more carriers small and large are offering higher-end devices and cheaper monthly plans including 3G and even 4G data.

This could also be due to the cost of U.S. contracts. In the U.K., almost everything is bundled in — calls, texts, data, tethering, etc. — but in the U.S. things are a little different. On the other side of the pond, all of this is split up, and customers must choose how they want their plan from a variety of different bundles. While this means U.S. customers can tailer their package to suit them, they often work out more expensive than those in the U.K.

Outlook

During 2012, smartphones are set to continue the rapid evolution that they’ve been enjoying in recent years. By this time next year, you’ll likely be carrying a quad-core smartphone in your pocket, while budget and mid-range devices will feature the dual-core processors that power the flagship devices we have today. 4G speeds will continue to take over — in the U.S., at least — while the U.K. continues its testing with plans to launch 4G networks during 2013.

iPhone 4S on side

As smartphones cameras continue to improve, point-and-shoot cameras will become less popular. This is already happening, and while smartphones won’t take over completely during 2012, they will continue to steal market share from dedicated cameras.

The design of mobile phones is unlikely to change too much over the next 12 months, though you can expect handsets to become lighter and thinner. Larger devices like the Samsung Galaxy Note may be somewhat successful, but they will remain a niche, and I don’t expect them to spark a new trend that sees us all carrying 5.3-inch smartphones.

As for the television, it’s possible we’ll see major changes during 2012. With talk of Apple set to “revolutionize” the television set with a Siri-powered OLED display, the way in which we interact with our TVs and consume our favorite content could all be set to change. Samsung also showed of its latest Smart TVs during CES earlier this month, which already allow us to use Kinect-like gestures and voice controls to navigate our way around apps and content.

Apple OLED TV - Siri

While I’m personally a fan of 3D television, I don’t think the technology will really take off until glasses-free 3D sets become available to the masses. And even then, 3D will be saved only for the occasional movie or sports event.

2012 will be an interesting year for mobile and TV in Britain, and I believe there are exciting things ahead — particularly for the latter.

What do you think 2012 will bring to mobile and TV here in Britain?


Killian Bell

Killian Bell is a 20-something technology journalist based in a tiny town in England. He has an obsession with that little company in Cupertino...

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