Why TV Platforms Are Conduits and Apps Are Universal

It seems people have already started picking out their favorite TV / IPTV / OTT / Smart TV — or whatever buzz word you want use — platform, which is fine. We’ve been brought up in a world where you choose the platform / OS that serves you best. So far that’s held true for personal computing and mobile devices. However, with Smart TVs and networked entertainment devices, that kind of relationship doesn’t hold up as well.

Sure, if you’re a long time Apple enthusiast, Apple TV will feel like the right device to get. If your platform agnostic, you may prefer the simplicity of the Roku Player. If you’re an early adopter who likes to bask in Google’s glow, you may go for Google TV. As you can see there’s lots of choices (plenty more I didn’t mention). And now, for about the last three years or so, HDTV manufactures have started getting in on the game and rolling their own Smart TV platforms that negate the need for a separate box to stream media locally and / or from online service providers. To them, it’s a natural evolution — just as with adding 3D viewing capability to their latest models.

So, if it isn’t apparent already, consumers, analysts, and bloggers are beginning to see overlap and questioning why TV manufactures should even bother getting in the space. Asking: Why not pick a popular platform instead of fragmenting the market even further? Actually, a long-time friend and researcher who I respect, Michael Wolf at GigaOm, tweeted this very sentiment after he learned of LG’s entrance in the Smart TV market, which then spurred me to reply and even write this post. Michael broadcasted: “Oh great, more platform fragmentation in Smart TV.” I then replied: “What’s wrong with LG having their own platform? Is choice bad these days?” From there an interesting exchange took place. I then later realized that the platform wasn’t as important to consumers as much as if the apps they are most often going to use will be available on any new, lust-worthy network device or TV. Imagine holding up a HDTV purchase decision, or limiting your vendor choices, because it didn’t run X platform? I even went so far to ask: “Does the the Hulu Plus app work any differently on Roku than it does on a VIZIO HDTV?”

Here’s the deal folks. Platforms are conduits and apps are becoming universal. Premium apps like Hulu Plus work the same across different devices and TV optimized, HTML5-based web apps are identical no matter which platform they’re accessed from. The bugger, as Michael points out in his recent column on this topic, is the extra work developers need to put into supporting a variety of systems. Here I believe Michael is both right and wrong. If you believe that apps should be designed to cater to each individual platform (similar to what’s done in the mobile world), then yeah… having dozens of platforms to develop for would be hell. However, if you believe that independent developers should create TV web apps that are 100% cross-platform compatible (like Netflix is starting to), then this is a non-issue or a minor annoyance at best, if an app shell for a platform’s app market is required (think: iPad Apps vs Chrome Web Apps — in some cases they are the exact same app). Yes, some platforms require a custom app to be created using their SDK (i.e. Roku, Apple TV, TiVo) and such, but, as you can see with Boxee, they’ve recently opened up to the idea of embracing web apps. Many of the TV manufactures and Google TV-based products are already supporting web apps, as well as with full web browsing and site bookmarking.

The choice really is… Do you want to buy a Smart TV that relies on a single platform (i.e. Roku, Boxee, Apple TV, or whatever, if it comes down the pike), or would you like to have that option and TVs that can provide a consistent, updatable interface that overlays (may even compliment) live TV and provides access to all the premium apps you’re already familiar with (i.e. Netflix, Hulu Plus, VUDU, etc.), free HTML5-based apps, and network media streaming? Personally, at this point, I’d hate to see less than a handful of currently popular over-the-top platforms dictate the direction of Smart TVs. Plus, remember, you can always add any new must-have device that pops up in the future to your HDTV. I guess… in an ideal world, one would have the option to load their platform of choice on a Smart TV. Until then, I’ll take choice in the market to further innovation and standardization.

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Filed in: Content Providers, Industry Buzz, Software, Streaming Media Devices