Tuesday, August 31, 2010, 10:58 AM ET|Posted by Will RichmondIf Hamlet were considering what functionality devices connecting the Internet to TVs should have, he might well pose the question, "to browse or not to browse?" In other words, should connected devices come with a browser that allows users to freely the surf the entire Internet - as they do online and on mobile devices - or should they present content and services through walled gardens of approved "apps?"
With new connected devices proliferating (see Apple iTV tomorrow), and becoming less and less expensive (see Roku price cuts yesterday), it's inevitable that massive connected device adoption lies ahead. Yet even as these devices are poised to take on greater importance in consumers' lives and be ever more strategic to any company committed to a three-screen strategy, it is still far from clear which device approach will dominate.
On the one hand, many of the early connected devices that have gained traction, such as TiVo, Roku, and gaming consoles have eschewed browsers. This trend has continued with connected TVs from manufacturers like Vizio and Samsung for example (with the latter launching an aggressive app building contest to raise further visibility). The app paradigm is likely to be embraced by Apple when it announces its new iTV product tomorrow, which looks to be a low-cost bridge to run iTunes and other iOS apps on the TV. Apple has already had success with apps on the iPad, such as with ABC.com and Netflix, so this is familiar ground.
On the other hand, Google TV's launch, which is coming this fall, is likely to be the most recent and highest-profile connected device with browsing capabilities. The arguments for why devices should include browsers is very well articulated in a new white paper from Espial, which makes a WebKit-based browser for use in connected devices. In a recent briefing with Jaison Dovane, the company's president and CEO, and Kirk Edwardson, director of marketing, they walked me through all of the arguments why including a browser makes sense.
The primary reason to include browsers is improved efficiency and scalability for both content providers and manufacturers. The argument goes that the matrix of apps that content providers need to build and maintain as devices proliferate is overwhelming, and therefore will stifle their involvement. In addition, for manufacturers, the integration and support costs quickly mount, adding prohibitive new overhead to products that are mercilessly cost-reduced to lower prices and build sales volumes. In short, Espial asserts that while apps have gotten the game going, to scale, it's key to create new efficiencies through the use of a browser.
An important benefit of the browser-based approach is that consumers get the "full-Internet" experience. Some might say that's unnecessary, as people don't want to browse the web on TV; that's what computers are for. And yet, many people use the web on smartphones like iPhones and Android devices. In fact, mobile devices offer both apps and mobile browsing. My personal experience is that apps are most effective when they take advantage of some native aspect of the device, like geo-location. But for media consumption, apps don't feel quite as impactful. For example, reading the NY Times on my Droid using their app offers no discernible advantage (and even has some drawbacks) compared to its well-formatted mobile version.
What's ahead for those involved in the connected device ecosystem is whether browsers and the browsing experience will be common or not. It's too early to tell. My personal bias is to have them, so that the user experience isn't limited in any way. That said, when I think about what I do today with my Roku, the app-only model may well be sufficient.
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