2012: Apple v. Samsung for the future of TV

By Jonny Evans

One day that TV show or movie you're watching will follow you from room-to-room and place-to-place on any of your array of compatible devices; that's part of the promise of the new tech battleground, smart TV. This is set to be a new front for hostilities between Apple [AAPL] and Samsung, that's what my runes tell me.

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[ABOVE: Some runes, earlier today.]

Disposable heroes

That huge ignorance-breeding box in the corner of your front room is ripe for change. While almost every other device in your world has acquired new features and intelligence, other than a shift to support higher def formats, what has your television been doing to play its part in our emerging tech age? Not a lot, at least, not really. But I think there could even be a launch date for Apple's next-generation foray into this market penciled inside Apple CEO, Tim Cook's diary.

2012. That's when things begin to change. While Apple has the relationships through iTunes, Samsung has begun reaching deals with key broadcasters to offer channels as apps within a smorgasbord of apps accessible via its connected television sets.

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Apple TV for the people

Apple has a plan to introduce its own iOS television -- essentially an incredibly classy television set with Apple TV/iTunes/games consoles built-in, a nice and fast low power mobile processor and support for apps.

Think what these apps could be:

-- Apps for television, such as iPlayer

-- Apps for gaming, such as Angry Birds

-- Apps for the Web, such as Safari

-- Apps for communication, such as Mail, Facetime and Skype -- those family phone calls will never be the same (and such fun for hackers and rogue government agents to jump onto those built-in webcams).

-- Apps for socialists, such as Ping and Twitter support

Regular readers will know I've been predicting an Apple move to deliver television sets for a long time. I still can't understand why the company hasn't made more use of the A4 processor inside the Apple TV it sells today. However, when it decides to switch that no doubt in development Apple TV software on, it will have an existing market of compatible devices from which to recruit its consumer evangelists.

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[ABOVE: An Apple iCloud graphic. Can you see any reason a TV shouldn't be one of the screens?]

The time is now

What will consumers be evangelizing? Can anyone out there imagine, as I do, the potential for iCloud services via your existing Apple TV's in future? Your television suddenly becomes the hub for all your music, media, movie and other entertainment, drawing its selection from your collection, up there in the iTunes-tinctured skies.

Why is now the moment? Apple and Samsung are locked in a desperate struggle, which in microcosm reflects the global macroeconomic struggle, in which economic power is being painfully transferred from the West to the East.

(Samsung needn't win this contest, in a sense, Apple already offers solutions from the East to the West, all bounded up inside a Cupertino-designed package. A focus on product simplicity and Apple's software excellence is its secret sauce.)

Samsung wants to be Apple

Samsung is at IFA this week, demonstrating what remains of its banned attempt at replicating Apple's end-to-end connected device strategy, and that company's Youghee Lee, Samsungs VP of Global Mobile Communications Business, says his firm's mantra is "More choice without more complications."

Most manufacturer's smart TV app selections will include things like Netflix, Facebook, Picasa or iPlayer.

Naturally, smart television manufacturers are attempting to breathe life into their own App Stores, but let's face it, when it comes to App Stores that's an Apple advantage. And most app developers won't want to develop an app for each different model of smart television, if only to avoid complex support responsibilities.

Is there a market for connected TV?

In 2012, Samsung will propel its connected television vision. It will be using this to shore up its smartphone/tablet approach as the company flexes its corporate muscle to become the new Sony as the sleeping giants of Asia awaken, as China becomes the world's biggest consumer market.

Apple and Samsung are competing now. It is creditable to Samsung just how quickly it has been able to jump up to the plate to offer a strong and connected iOS alternative, but this still may not be enough.

"Apple is working on new technology to deliver video to televisions, and has been discussing whether to try to launch a subscription TV service, according to people familiar with the matter," said an August 26 article in the The Wall Street Journal.

Apple's attempt at the TV market will draw all the lessons it can from Samsung, combine them with everything the company, under Jony Ive, has learned about product design, wrap all the above inside an Apple-flavored pill to deliver a vision of a connected television that -- and this is the kicker -- people will actually use.

You got to want to use the machine

Simple to set-up, simple to use, and immediately connected to the Apple iTunes content ecosystem, which itself embraces music, movies, TV, educational content, photos, social networking and, of course, Apps.

"Imagine a true plug-and-play experience," wrote Jean-Louis Gassée in his Monday Note blog. "One set with only two wires: power and the cable TV coax. Turn it on, assert your Apple ID credentials and you're in business. The program guide looks good and is easy to navigate; pay channels are just a click and a password away. The TV runs apps, from games to FaceTime and Skype, it 'just works' with your other iDevices and also acts as a WiFi base station using the cable provider's Internet service."

"The idea is exciting and so obvious it's got to happen," he says.

Change hurts, time heals

Does it have to happen? In truth, activity so far has been hampered:

-- In one corner you have technologists as evinced by Google, whose attempt at TV (Google TV) lacks a business plan for the broadcasters who make the stuff we want to watch, reflecting that firm's consistent blind spot when it comes to paying creatives.

-- In the other corner, you have the CE makers willing to negotiate with broadcasters, who face an overly complex set of challenges before they get to offer that content legitimately.

Not only this, but only 40 percent of televisions sold with the capacity of being connected to the Internet actually are so-connected. By 2015, 47 percent of flat panel TVs shipped will be connectable.

Sons of Anarchy

Audiences are changing.

All you need to do is watch TV show authors posting on Twitter for more than a morning and you'll find some evidence that TV audiences today are using services like catch-up TV online and that TV viewing habits are changing away from the linear, schedule-dominated approach that traditionally defines the activity.

"We noticed last season, actually with every passing season, that more and more fans are watching Sons off their DVR. Such is the future of television. There will be no programming, only content." Sons of Anarchy writer, Kurt Sutter.

In other words, we may still be couch potatoes, but we're couch potatoes in charge of our own schedule.

Autonomy in armchairs

There has been pressure for radical change for some time. However, everyone from broadcasters, show makers, device makers, cable and satellite firms, console games manufacturers and TV listings firms have, in their different ways, been resisting such change. As you'd expect: change may be good, but it usually hurts.

Resistance is futile now, as change has begun. Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster recently declared Apple to have invested $3.9 billion in components for a connected TV -- he's been predicting this device for years. "Apple will do to television manufacturers what it did to phone makers with the iPhone," he predicts.

Samsung had to act

Samsung is a TV manufacturer too, and with Apple rumored to have had that firm build some prototypes across the last few years, is it any surprise it has stepped up to the plate to challenge its one-time biggest customer.

Ultimate success in next year's TV challenge will depend on the international depth of each company's execution, a commitment to usability, and success in creating an army of applications to make each television uniquely representative of each consumer's unique preferences -- just as the iPad is a different device to different people on strength of its apps.

Let me know your thoughts in comments below, please follow me on Twitter so I can let you know when new reports get published here first on Computerworld.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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