In the lead-up to next week's CES, there has already been a lot of attention focused on "Ultra High-Definition" TVs, the industry's latest move toward ever-bigger TVs with ever-higher resolution. That's understandable given TV manufacturers' desire to extend the core appeal of HDTVs. But important as these attributes are, TV manufacturers should recognize that going forward, it's actually user experience that will be the critical differentiator.
User experience means a lot of different things: easy navigation to desired content/services, availability of a wide range of content/services, interoperability with other devices, personalization, search, etc. While today's "Smart TVs" offer relatively easy access to a handful of the most popular OTT services like Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus, MLB and others, the main problems with these TVs are that they are still clunky to navigate and they don't fit seamlessly into the larger ecosystem of video devices and services.
There are all kinds of reasons for this: remote controls have a constrained form factor compared to tablets and other touch-based devices; Smart TVs typically don't have web browsers, so each OTT service's app must be integrated (and for each model), a time-consuming, expensive process which limits choice; the presence of pay-TV set-top boxes and proprietary video services often precludes the TV itself from being the dominant UI; there's no common operating system knitting together disparate TV brands, the way Windows did for PCs, for example, and so on.
As confounding as these problems are, consumers' interest in seeing them resolved is strong. When I chat with friends and family who know I'm immersed in the video industry, I'm barraged by questions/complaints that typically start off with "Why can't I just….?" No doubt you have similar frustrations as well; I know I do. Now that TVs are connected in 30-40% of U.S. homes (depending on whose data you look at); consumers' interest in having the TV function as just another connected device - along with their computers, smartphones and tablets - is only increasing.
Meaningful evidence of how TVs' user experience will truly advance is hard to come by. Despite all of its well-known issues, Google TV is probably the best current hope for a system that helps TVs gain functionality and interoperate with other devices. Otherwise, there's a hodgepodge of efforts by individual TV brands and of course all of the disparate experiences that standalone connected devices (e.g. Xbox, Roku, TiVo, etc.) each offer.
As such, it's hard not to see Apple stepping into this space in a big way. Today's TV landscape has all prerequisites of what Apple looks for: strong consumer interest and large market size, fragmented, sub-optimal technologies and user experiences, and a big opportunity to leverage its own device ecosystem and UI.
Of course, the rumors of an impending Apple TV (or whatever it might be called) ran rampant in 2012. But if CES 2013 for TVs ends up being more about just bigger screen sizes and higher resolutions, I predict the drumbeat for an Apple TV will grown even louder. Tomorrow's TVs need better user experiences and it's hard to believe the clever people at Apple don't understand this - and are preparing to capitalize on it.