It’s Time To Kill Off Broadcast TV

No TVIt’s time to take over-the-air television out and shoot it.

You may have noticed that there’s a war over wireless airwaves. Electromagnetic spectrum is a finite resource and those that have want to keep, but many who have also want more. The pressure is particularly intense to expand the spectrum available for mobile data.

I’m going to sidestep the arguments about just how quickly the demand for wireless data is growing and whether carriers’ claims of a looming crisis are real or a ploy designed to lock up bandwidth and freeze out competitors. One way or another we’re going to need more spectrum over time and the question is where it is going to come from.

All the usable spectrum that exists is assigned to someone and all of it is jealously guarded. A great deal of it is controlled by government and we don’t know how, or even if, some of it is used. But prying it loose will be very, very difficult.

The richest block of spectrum available is being used for over-the-air television broadcasts.  The more than 200 MHz of prime bandwidth assigned to broadcast TV should and be put to a better use.

A half-measure is now underway to recover unused bits of the TV spectrum. Congress last year authorized “incentive auctions,” in which licensees can voluntarily give up unused spectrum and share in the proceeds when the government auctions it off for mobile data use. Even though broadcasters are being allowed to sell something they don’t actually own–channels were originally given to licensees to act as stewards of the “public convenience and necessity”—they have shown no great enthusiasm for the process. It’s far from clear how much spectrum will be freed through the process.

One thing we do know is that it is going to take a very long time. TV channels are assigned in 6 MHz slices and to make the freed spectrum more useful for data, the plan is to “repack” the surviving channels to create bigger contiguous blocks of bandwidth to be sold. But this means that some channels will have to be reassigned to new frequencies, a tedious business. The National Assn. of Broadcasters has never been very enthusiastic about the incentive auctions and is doing its best to delay the process.

Then whole process is too much trouble for too little gain. The better question is why we are dedicating any  spectrum to over-the-air TV. The fact is that relatively few people watch it. While there is some dispute over the numbers, it appears that about three-quarters  of Americans get their television primarily or exclusively by cable or satellite, whether as traditional scheduled programming or content delivered over-the-top on the internet. Cable or satellite service is available to virtually all of U.S. households, and the relatively few exceptions are most likely out of broadcast range as well. Dedicating so much bandwidth to serve and ever-shrinking audience seems foolish.

Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll see the end will come for over-the-air TV any time in the foreseeable future. The deck is too heavily stacked against it. Broadcasters, of course, hate the idea and they remain very powerful in Washington, less because of their campaign contributions than because they control the free exposure on local TV that candidates for Congress depend on. The Federal Communications Commission doesn’t like the idea either because without over-the-air broadcasts the commission would effectively lose all power to regulate television, and regulators do like to regulate. Some will object that free television is a basic right that must be preserved. If so, it is a right that fewer and fewer people seem to care about. If we decide as a matter of public policy that free or very low cost TV should be provided for the poor, it would not be hard to devise something like the (increasingly pointless) lifeline basic landline telephone service. The government could easily afford to pay for it out of the many billions of dollars that auctioning TV spectru would yield.

You need not be a very astute observer of th Washington scene to know that the fact that something should happen is no reason whatever to believe that it will. Still reusing all that underused TV spectrum is something worth dreaming about.



Apple TV and the Trojan Horse Strategy

Apple TV is one of the things I get asked quite a bit about during my industry analysis presentations. It seems that everyone out there wants to know what Apple has planned for the big screen. Although no one knows, and there is much speculation, my key thoughts about this all along have been that Apple will in some way turn the TV screen into a platform to deliver rich content and services. If you think about it, the TV screen is the last of major screens in consumers lives to truly become a smart. Many vendors have tried, but the technology in many ways is still not here to really make TV’s smart.

I believe there is a tremendous amount of interest in Apple’s moves in this area because of the massive opportunity to re-invent what we experience through our TV. But the opportunity is much larger than simply consuming video content in new ways.

A Platform Unlike Any Other

The untapped opportunity for the large piece of dumb glass sitting in hundreds of millions of consumers living rooms and bedrooms is to create the ultimate entertainment platform. This is a big deal if you think about it. Today most platforms are computing platforms where things like entertainment are secondary to things like productivity, communication, etc. This is what has always intrigued me about game consoles. I have felt from very early on in my digital home research that game consoles were the ultimate entertainment platforms which would evolve into trojan horse entertainment gateways for more than just video gaming. With many of the updates brought to both the Playstation and the XBOX, it is clear that this is exactly what is happening. In fact, I believe that the value of game consoles for today’s and perhaps even future consumers, will be less about gaming and more about other entertainment services.

That being said, gaming is an important part of living room entertainment. That is why I believe Apple is betting seriously on gaming across all of the screens in which they compete. Game Center for Apple becomes the glue tying consumer gaming experiences together and the foundation of a gaming service akin to XBOX Live. A holistic video game strategy both immersive and casual is key to the future of Apple TV as an entertainment platform.

A Set Top Box is a Trojan Horse not a Large Piece of Glass

I will believe that Apple is making a large piece of glass when I see it. In my opinion the current strategy with Apple TV is that it is a small, yet powerful, set top box and is their best plan of action. Mainly because there is absolutely nothing that can be built into a large piece of glass that can not also be accomplished with a small, yet powerful, set top box. If Apple wants to sell hundreds of millions of Apple TV’s it will accomplish this with a set top box not a large, and expensive, piece of glass. Even if Apple does decide to sell a large piece of glass in the shape of a TV, they would still have to employ the Apple TV set top box strategy in order to provide an identical experience to the hundreds of millions of consumers who already have large pieces of glass and don’t intend on buying a new one any time soon.

Interestingly, Microsoft is in a position to compete when it comes to entertainment platforms. The XBOX 360 is much more than a gaming console and is evolving into a fairly mature entertainment gateway. The XBOX 360 has been called a trojan horse before and I believe it is but Microsoft can not sit still.

We may analyze and probe from every angle Apple TV in its current implementation and yet I don’t believe Apple or Microsoft has yet implemented the key growth features for this category–namely apps. The next frontier of the TV platform is to let developers begin to invent new applications and software designed specifically for the large screen. This does not mean a repurposing of existing apps and blowing them up to fit on a larger screen. It means re-inventing the way we think about software and entertainment experiences for the big screen Similarly, touch computing required a new software development paradigm built from the ground up to work with touch; so I believe the TV needs software purposely built for that screen and its role in consumers lives.

What makes the TV fascinating is how different of a relationship consumers have with it versus other screens, or platforms, in their lives. For example, the TV is not a personal screen like a notebook, tablet, or smartphone. The TV is a communal screen where in a family environment it is enjoyed by multiple people simultaneously. In this scenario it doesn’t make a ton of sense for me to run Twitter or Facebook, or at the very least those aren’t the most interesting applications for the TV. What gets me excited is that when the TV becomes a platform for software developers to take advantage of, I believe we will see an entirely new set of applications developed with more communal experiences in mind.

The family or communal cloud will become an important ingredient in this scenario. I wrote about the need for more family and communal clouds last week and the more I think about it the more I am convinced it is an unmet need in the market. Communal screens will require communal content and that is when the family’s digital media becomes an important part of the experience. The experience of seeing up to date photos of loved ones and family members (of my choosing) on my TV is one I feel would be of great value.

Lastly, I would add that although I believe Apple TV is a trojan horse, I am not convinced Apple has yet employed the strategy fully. I think this is where gaming and apps will come in to round out the platform. I know we want to kick our cable providers to the curb but I don’t think that is the entry point. I believe games and apps will deliver the value propositions that get the Apple TV trojan horse strategy going. Then once in the door in masses, hopefully the Hollywood industry will begin to invest in business models that will keep them from extinction in the future.

How Sony can beat Samsung and LG on Smart TV Interfaces

As I wrote last week, Samsung and LG are following Microsoft’s lead in future interfaces for the living room. Both Samsung and LG showed off future voice control and in Samsung’s case, far-field air gestures. Given what Samsung and LG showed at CES, I believe that Sony could actually beat both of them for ease of interaction and satisfaction.

HCI Matters
I have been researching in one way or another, HCI for over 20 years as an OEM, technologist, and now analyst. I’ve conducted in context, in home testing and have sat behind the glass watching consumers struggle, and in many cases breeze though intuitive tasks. Human Computer Interface (HCI) is just the fancy trade name for how humans interact with other electronic devices. Don’t be confused by the word “computer” as it also used for TVs, set top boxes and even remote controls.

Microsoft recently started using the term “natural user interface” and many in the industry have been using this term a lot lately. Whether it’s HCI or NUI doesn’t matter. What does matter is its fundamental game-changing impact on markets, brands and products. Look no farther than the iPhone with direct touch model and Microsoft Kinect with far-field air gestures and voice control. I have been very critical of Siri’s quality but am confident Apple will wring out those issues over time.

At CES 2012 last week, Samsung, Sony, and LG showed three different approaches to advanced TV user interfaces, or HCI.

Samsung took the riskiest approach, integrating a camera and microphone array into each Smart TV. Samsung Smart Interaction can do far field air gestures and voice control. The CES demo I saw did not go well at all; speech had to be repeated multiple times and it performed incorrect functions. The air gestures performed even more poorly in that it was slow and misfired often. The demoer keep repeating that this feature was optional and consumers could fall back to a standard remote. While I expect Smart Interaction to improve before shipment, there’s only so much that can be done.

LG used their Magic Motion Remote to use voice commands and search and to be a virtual mouse pointer. The mouse


pointer for icons went well, but the mouse for keyboard functions didn’t do well at all. Imaging clicking, button by button, “r-e-v-e-n-g-e”. Yes, that hard. Voice command search worked better than Samsung, but not as good as Siri, which has issues. It was smart to place the mic on the remote now as it is closer to the user and the the system knows who to listen to.

Sony, ironically, took the safe route, pairing smart TVs with a remote that reminded me of the Boxee Box remote which has a full keypad one side. Sony implemented a QWERTY keyboard on one side and trackpad on the other side which could be used with a thumb, similar to a smartphone. This approach was reliable in a demo and consumers will use this well after they stop using the Samsung and LG approaches. The Sony remote has microphone, too which I believe will be enabled for smart TV once it improves in reliability. Today the microphone works with a Blu-ray player with a limited command dictionary, a positive for speech control. This is similar to Microsoft Kinect where you “say what you see”.


I believe that Sony will win the 2012 smart TV interface battle due to simplicity. Consumers will be much happier with this more straight forward and reliable approach. I expect Sony to add voice control and far field gestures once the technology works the way it would. Sony hopes that consumers will thank them too as they have thanked Apple for shipping fully completed products. Samsung and LG’s latest interaction models as demonstrated at CES are not ready to be unleashed to the consumers as they are clearly alpha or beta stage. I want to stress that winning the interface battle doesn’t mean winning the war. Apple, your move.

Samsung & LG Validate Microsoft’s Living Room Interaction Model

Microsoft launched Kinect back in November 2010 in a  move to change the man-to-machine interface between the consumer to their living room content.  While incredibly risky, the gamble paid off in the fastest selling consumer device, ever.  I saw the potential after analyzing the usage models and technology for a few months after Kinect launch and predicted that at least all DMA’s would have the capability.

The Kinect launch sent shock waves into the industry because the titans of the living room like Sony, Samsung, and Toshiba hadn’t even gotten close to duplicating or leading with voice and air-gesture techniques.  With Samsung and LG announcing future TVs with this capability at CES, Microsoft’s living room interaction strategy has officially been affirmed at CES and most importantly, the CE industry.

Samsung “Smart Interaction”sammy

Samsung launched what it called “Smart Interaction”, which  allows users to control and interact with their HDTVs.  Smart Interaction allows the user to control the TV with their voice, air-gestures, and passively with their face.  The voice and air gestures operate in a manner similar to Microsoft in that pre-defined gestures exist for different interactions. For instance, users can select an item by grabbing it, which signifies clicking an icon on a remote.  Facial recognition essentially “logs you in” to your profile like a PC would giving you your personal settings for TV and also gives you the virtual remote.

A Step Further Than Microsoft ?

Samsung has one-upped Microsoft on one indicator, at least publicly, with their application development model.  Samsung has broadly opened their APIs via an SDK which could pull in tens of thousands of developers.  If this gains traction, we could see a future challenge arise where platforms are fighting for the number of apps in the same way Apple initially trumped everyone in smartphones.  The initial iPhone lure was its design but also  the apps, the hundreds of thousands of apps that were developed.  It made Google Android look very weak initially until it caught up, still makes Blackberry and Windows Phone appear weaker, and can be argued it was the death blow to HP’s webOS. I believe that Microsoft is gearing up for a major “opening” of the Kinect ecosystem in the Windows 8 timeframe where Windows 8 Metro apps can be run inside the Kinect environment.

Challenges for Samsung and LG

Advanced HCI like voice and air-gesture control is a monumental undertaking and risk.  Changing anything that stands between a CE user and the content is risky in that if it’s not perfect, and I mean perfect, users will stop using it.  Look at version 1 of Apple’s Siri.  Everyone who bought the phone tried it and most stopped using it because it wasn’t reliable or consistent.  Microsoft Kinect has many, many contingencies to work well including standing in a specific “zone” to get the best air gestures to work correctly.  Voice control only works in certain modes, not all interactions.

The fallback Apple has is that users don’t have to use Siri, it’s an option and it can be very personal in that most use Siri when others aren’t looking or listening.  The Kinect fallback is a painful one, in that you wasted that cool looking $149 peripheral.  Similarly, Samsung  “Smart Interaction” users can fallback to the remote, and most will initially, until it’s perfected.

There are meaningful differences in consumer audiences of Siri, Kinect, and Samsung “Smart Interaction”.  I argue that Siri and Kinect users are “pathfinders” and “explorers” in that they enjoy the challenge of trying new things.  The traditional HDTV buyer doesn’t want any pathfinding or exploring; they want to watch content and if they’re feeling adventurous, they’ll go out on a limb and check sports scores.   This means that Samsung’s customers won’t appreciate anything that just doesn’t work and don’t admire the “good try” or a Siri beta product.

One often-overlooked challenge in this space is content, or the amount of content you can actually control with voice and air gestures.  Over the top services like Netflix and Hulu are fine if the app is resident in the TV, but what if you have a cable or satellite box which most of the living population have? What if you want to PVR something or want to play specific content that was saved on it?  This is solvable if the TV has a perfect channel guide for the STB and service provider with IR-blasting capabilities to talk to it.  That didn’t work out too well for Google TV V1, its end users or its partners.

This is the Future, Embrace It

The CE industry won’t get this right initially with a broad base of consumers but that won’t kill the interaction model. Hardware and software developers will keep improving until it finally does, and it truly becomes natural, consistent, and reliable. At some point in the very near future, most consumers will be able to control their HDTVs with their voice and air gestures.  Many won’t want to do this, particularly those who are tech-phobic or late adopters.

In terms of industry investment, the positive part is that other devices like phones, tablets, PCs and even washing machines leverage the same interactions and technologies so there is a lot of investment and shared risk.  The biggest question is, will one company other than Microsoft lead the future of living room?  Your move, Apple.

Can Google TV be Saved?

As of yesterday Logitech has been offering their Revue Google TV set top box for $99. I was at Logitech’s media day where they launched the Revue and I remember the mumblings from the media and analysts when they announced the price of $250. It was as if everyone knew that Logitech clearly priced themselves out of the market. $250 is quite a lot to spend on a product that was truncated at launch.

I was also at Google IO where they first announced and demonstrated Google TV. I remember at the time thinking that this product had potential but that it also had a good deal of hurdles to overcome. The experience from the first Google TV reminded me of many experiences I had with early products in the digital media adapter segment. Many of the products worked to a degree but did not necessarily nail the overall experience.

In fact i’m yet to see a product in the connected TV / Smart TV sector that nails all that a connected TV should be. If I was to nail down what I feel the biggest hindrance to connected TV moving forward it’s Hollywood.

I worked and consulted with the entertainment industry very shortly but long enough to understand how hard it is to work with Hollywood. Ask anyone who has been serious about looking into connected TV solutions and you hear constantly that lack of content is the biggest missing piece.

We are yet to see an offering in the connected TV space that has the depth and breadth of content as our cable or satellite service provider. The main reason for this is because they pay Hollywood and the network studios a massive sum of money to have the rights to broadcast their content.

Generally speaking the Internet is not yet a fully functional substitute for a cable or satellite service provider. Some consumers depend less on things like real time news and sports and can therefore come closer to being able to replace their service providers. Others have no problem waiting days, weeks or month’s to watch their favorite TV shows after they have aired. In some cases you can have your programming needs met from the Internet. Those situations however are the minority not the majority.

For the technology industry to bring to market a full connected TV solution that can replace a TV programming service provider is going to require the help from Hollywood.

For more interesting reading on the subject check out Jared Newman’s article at Techland called “How Google TV Can be Saved.”

The Post PC Era Will Happen in Two Stages

In much of my work providing industry analysis to many companies in the technology industry, I come across the question of what the post PC-era actually means quite often. As the technology industry shifts from one computing platform (the PC) to multiple computing platforms (tablets, smart phones, TV, more) the landscape is changing and continuing to bring new challenges to industry leaders.

I believe the Post-PC era is going to happen in two stages. First there is the stage we are just entering into that can best be understood as the PC plus era. In this phase the PC is still needed as a central platform in the lives of most consumers. Meaning the PC is still a valued and sought after part of the ecosystem. Other devices like smart phones, tablets, smart TVs etc are capable and complimentary computing platforms but none can adequately replace the other.

The traditional PC as we know it is still the central computing device in this phase; however more devices are entering the ecosystem that allow consumers to become less dependent on it. Another key point of the PC Plus stage is that the PC is a general platform for computing and other devices are more specialized.

The next phase will be the phase where truly de-centralized personal computing starts to take shape. In this phase you will be able to do most if not all desired computing tasks comfortably, reliably, and conveniently from any connected smart screen. In this phase the personal computing cloud becomes a key ingredient that is the central glue of the personal computing experience.

I say this phase is de-centralized because our dependence moves from the PC to the cloud thus allowing any device connected to our personal cloud to become our computing platform of choice.

Consumers in this model can choose just one or any number combinations of screens that fit their fancy to accomplish any and all computing tasks. The key difference in this stage from the PC plus stage is that most if not all computing devices can become general purpose devices rather than specific function.

There is of course going to be a great deal of variation in how this plays out in the market place. We will see quite a bit of experimentation by both the manufactures and the consumers of these products as we flesh out the needs of the market.

This personal computing market is large enough that a one size fits all approach will not be the standard. This opens the door for many different innovations and product approaches to support each other and allow for healthy diversity and competition.

De-centralized computing becomes more personal
I’ve often explained that as we get smarter devices, smarter software, and smarter cloud services we will also get more personalized devices, software and cloud services. The translation is smarter = more personal.

This is not to say that there isn’t a level of personalization with these devices already only that it will be more so in the future.

The technology industry has used the term “personal computer” for three decades now, however the term really means “owned by a person.” My personal computer isn’t really all that personal at this point in time. It knows nothing about me and everything personalized about it is because I put in the time and effort to personalize it. A better term would be “customized computers” rather than “personal computers.”

In the future however I believe these devices really do become more personal rather than customized. The roadmap the semiconductor companies are on will pack an incredible amount of compute power into nearly everything imaginable. When that happens smart software and smart cloud services will have the opportunity to transform devices into truly personal computing companions.