The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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Multiple intelligences (or Why smart TVs should be more like PCs)

Like Robin, I love the counter-conventional wisdom John Herrman brings to “I Just Want A Dumb TV.” And I really like Frank Chimero’s distinction between “steadfast,” long-enduring, simple tools and “hot-swap” components of a system that you can change on the fly.

But I want to pivot from this taxonomy of “dumb” things to create a complimentary taxonomy of “smart” ones. If the current crop of “smart” TVs somehow goes wrong, how does it do it? And is a “dumb” monitor the best alternative?

“Smart” and “dumb” applied to electronics/tech has a long history, but for our purposes here, let’s look at the smartphone as one model of what a smart appliance looks like. That seems to be what makers of smart TVs did, anyways. So let’s say, bare minimum, a “smart” appliance needs:

  1. A fairly versatile processor and operating system;
  2. The ability to connect to other devices on a local or global network;
  3. Ability to run some kind of local secondary applications.

In short, it should slightly resemble a modern, networked computer. The problem with smart TVs is they work too much like smartphones and not enough like PCs.

See, smartphones are hypermobile, so you stuff a ton of capacity into the device because it’s going to have to do most things by itself. Phone, games, maps, email, the web, etc, — everything that can be jammed into those little screens.

Television screens, on the other hand, are antimobile. Like desktop PCs, they stay in one place, and you hook other things up to them: cable boxes, game systems, Blu-Ray players, and (wirelessly) remote controls.

With a smart TV, you can go in two directions to make the device “smarter”: you can either try to make them super self-sufficient, doing more and more on one piece of hardware. Or you can make the device better and better at talking to other devices.

There are good aesthetic reasons to do the first one: you can cut cords and clutter and save some money and electricity. Also, it’s wired in with software, not hardware. It’s not like you’ve got this crummy, outdated VCR built into the box; you can (in principle) update your OS and get a whole new set of applications and capabilities.

Still, the second way of making a TV smart seems better to me. Forget connecting my TV to the web; I want to connect my TV to my phone, my laptop, my refrigerator, my alarm clock, my media players (etc etc etc). But do it all wirelessly, over a local network. Make it easier for me to get my media — wherever it comes from — up on the biggest screen in my house. I can’t do that with a totally dumb TV, but I can’t do that easily with current-generation smart TVs either.

This is why I guess I’m more interested in “two-screen” approaches to television, where you’re using an iPad (or something) to browse channels and read about programs and tweet about what you’re watching and otherwise interact with and control what’s on your screen. Because the lesson of “hot-swapping” is that good parts that talk to each other well make the whole more than the sum of its parts.

One comment

Tim Carmody says…

Check this GigaOm/NewTeeVee post, “How TV OEMs Got Smart by Watching the Mobile Industry.”

Now, smartphones could be a good model for smart TVs in all sorts of ways. But let me just point out that the TV industry is WAY more complicated than mobile data/telephony.

Phones are essentially a three-way proposition, with carriers, manufacturers, and subscribers; smartphones introduce app and OS developers, which become different kinds of content provider. TVs have cable/satellite/IPTV providers, who may/may not also be broadband internet and home telephone providers. You have dozens of broadcast, basic/tiered cable, and premium cable channels — but they aren’t always the producers/owners of the content they deliver (which adds an extra layer of complexity). Then you have the app/OS makers — some of whom also produce content for the TV channels. And then you have the manufacturers and subscribers, who already have the strong direct relationship that Apple was able to wrest away from the providers, but who have no real history of dealing directly with content providers.

Trust me: it’s really fun to think about TV as a potential experience, but thinking about TV as a business too long will make your brain hurt.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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