Connected TVs: A new frontier for developers

One in five new TVs can connect to the Internet. For now, almost no one is watching. But that will change

Will Internet-capable TVs be the next frontier for app developers? After all, roughly one in five TVs shipped in the United States last year were capable of being connected to the Internet in various ways, according to DisplaySearch, a market research firm. And shipments of Web-enabled sets are growing at 30 percent a year. You'd think that manufacturers like Samsung and Panasonic would be beating the bushes looking for capable developers.

That's not happening -- yet. The connected TV is still in its infancy. "Many people are blissfully unaware of the capabilities of their connected sets," says Paul Gray, a senior analyst at DisplaySearch. "The value proposition of watching TV is still ... watching TV."

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Right now, connected TV is reminiscent of the Internet of 1995: walled gardens of proprietary content. "Imagine for a moment a world of apps where there are more than 10 platforms to choose from -- and where most of these platforms are closed to developers. A world where only a few applications have been developed. A world where no one is using these apps anyway," recently wrote Ben Hookway, a British entrepreneur and former CEO of Vidiactive, a Web video systems provider.

That's starting to change. Netflix, Facebook, and Twitter, for example, are available on TV sets made by nearly all of the major manufacturers, and Google TV promises to offer more. Then there's Apple TV, Apple's three-year-old set-top box for getting content -- but not (yet) apps -- via the Internet from Apple and approved providers, as well as over local networks from Macs, PCs, and iOS devices. As that trend continues, "connected TV will have its iPhone moment," as apps become more than an afterthought when consumers decide to buy a TV. That means opportunity for developers in the not-so-distant future.

What kind of apps should you be thinking about? There are three major categories, Hookway says.

TV-only apps: Apps for the TV screen or set-top box are usually your favorite Web services extended to the TV screen. Examples are Spotify, Flickr, and of course Twitter and Facebook. The apps need to be modified to work with a TV remote as well and with limited text input -- easier said than done.

Mobile-only apps: These are mobile or tablet apps that complement the TV but don't interact with it. Zeebox, for example, is a British service that offers content related to the programming the user is watching. And it's no surprise that research by Forrester Research and Nielsen cited by Hookway indicates that people who own tablets use them while watching television. In that context, tablets become what the industry calls "companion devices."

"I'm bullish on companion devices," says DisplaySearch's Gray. "TV is a shared experience, but additional content is personal, and you want to get that on a personal device and not necessarily share that with everyone in the room."

There's another reason that companion devices are so important in the TV world: A remote control is a terrible input device. "And who wants to sit in front of a TV with a keyboard on their lap?" asks Hookway. Connected TV won't have its "iPhone moment" until someone invents a much better user interface.

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