Connecting television: the struggle to control the living room

There’s a battle taking place in living rooms all around the world. Smart TV makers are fighting set-top box manufacturers, who in turn are fending off advances from over-the-top players and traditional pay TV operators. They’re all vying for the Holy Grail that is consumer attention, and while there is no clearly defined victor at present it’s only a matter of time before one emerges. The winner will be the platform capable of becoming a central hub for all content, from linear television to video on demand, games and interactive services. This time, the key to success will be the user experience and not content.


It’s not only established industry players who are trading punches. There’s stiff competition from heavyweight electronics giants as well. Microsoft and Sony want consumers to stream media through their current generation of games consoles, while Amazon has taken a stab at the market with the launch of Fire TV. Google has also had a couple of attempts, first through Google TV and more recently with Android TV, but none of these platforms have the necessary markings for success. They’re all missing a trick, or rather two – the user experience hasn’t been properly considered, and, in many cases, the issue of standardisation hasn’t been addressed.


Take Android TV, for example. Here’s a platform with an inherent advantage; Google’s software is well established, and already operates across mobile phones and tablet computers. In many ways, the Android OS is ideal for finally putting the ‘smart’ into smart TV. However, while other platforms running Google’s operating system largely owe their success to gesture and pointing control, Google has not implemented this for its latest venture.


Rather than use an intuitive remote control technology for Android TV, thereby providing a universal experience across all devices in the Android ecosystem, Google has chosen the age-old up-down-left-right (UDLR) approach for its latest TV offering. In essence Google has addressed one problem faced by the industry, a lack of standardisation, but has forgotten about the other – how the user interacts with the platform. This will not only affect consumer adoption, as at face value Android TV appears no different to other smart TV offerings, it also poses a logistical nightmare for developers who must now retrofit their apps to cater for Android TV’s different design and interface.


The issue with Android TV stems from the software development kit (SDK), which dictates all applications must conform to the UDLR user interface model. There is no capacity to incorporate the fine gesture control that makes a smartphone or tablet a pleasure to use. Effectively, Google is asking its development partners to completely rethink their applications and make them work within an unnecessarily constrained user interface model. To look at this another way, Google has made it unnecessarily complicated for developers to port their apps to Android TV.


Google could have reinvented the smart TV environment if the option of gesture control was incorporated into Android TV and allowances were made for more sophisticated lean-back remote controls. There would have been an immediate incentive for developers to deploy existing applications with little modification and Android TV could have had a transformative impact on the smart TV industry. The effort of doing so would be negligible and the potential reach of the platform could be very significant.


As it stands however, we’re still waiting for a victor to emerge in the battle for the living room. While standardisation is becoming more common with operators and TV manufacturers increasingly turning to established development platforms, including Android, the real challenge remains how to make these services and content easy to navigate and use. The winner will be the platform that can effectively address content discovery and control, providing TV users with the same experience as they are used to on their smartphone. 

Written by Navin Natoewal, General Manager of Philips uWand