• With Google Cast, Are Smart TVs On Their Way Back to Dumb-Dumb Land?

    Back in July, 2013, when Google introduced Chromecast, I speculated in “Just When TVs Were Getting Smart, Chromecast Will Make Them Dumb Again,” that the little $35 device could overturn years of TV manufacturers’ investments in making TVs “smart.” Flash forward to this week’s formal unveiling of “Google Cast” and the Vizio P-Series with SmartCast, and the vision of TVs heading back to dumb-dumb land could be underway.

    For a little context, for years TV manufacturers have been touting the concept of “smart TVs” that include access to various apps and games. Apps for streaming video (e.g. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc.) became a huge appeal of smart TVs as SVOD services’ popularity skyrocketed. TV manufacturers prominently promoted SVOD brands and their content as key benefits. And as manufacturers reduced the premium for smart TVs vs. comparable non-smart TVs, market share has grown.

    However, smart TVs have been constrained by a variety of factors including long TV replacement cycles, confusing UIs, cheap competitive streaming devices (e.g. Roku, Chromecast, etc.), lack of robust processing, limited number of apps, and developers’ reluctance to embrace them due to inconsistent technical approaches and TV manufacturers’ own inexperience with software.

    As a result, whereas smart TVs highlight key video apps (e.g. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc. which admittedly account for the vast majority of OTT usage), finding niche apps is unlikely. And even the smart TV app for say, Netflix, is unlikely to be as slick as Netflix’s app on an iOS or Android device. Furthermore, to the endless frustration of users, smart TVs are siloed, not integrated as part of broader computer operating or mobile ecosystems.

    In 2013, Google cleverly addressed all of this with Chromecast, which plugs into any TV’s HDMI port and takes “casting” instructions to stream video from the cloud. The casting instructions can come from any web site or app with casting enabled. In one bold stroke, Chromecast enabled all modern TVs to become “smart TVs,” capable of streaming video. Thousands of apps are now casting enabled.

    With Chromecast (and to a lesser extent with other connected TV devices), unless you really NEED a new HDTV, you have no incentive to get one solely to stream video;  you could just pick up a Chromecast. Conceptually, Vizio seems to agree, because the new P-Series with SmartCast, does exactly that - it chucks the whole smart TV paradigm of developing video apps for the smart TV out the window and instead relies on Google Cast (the underlying technology of Chromecast that is built into the P-Series) to handle video streaming.

    To make it a complete consumer experience, Vizio is bundling a 6-inch Android tablet with the P-Series that serves as a video discovery/casting device and a standard remote control, to handle TV functions like volume control, etc. Importantly, ANY mobile devices could just as easily be the remote for the P-Series because the new Vizio SmartCast app is the navigation hub, providing content discovery and control across services. Of course users can still access their favorite apps and cast directly from them to the P-Series. And in a belt and suspenders move, Vizio throws in a conventional remote control as well.

    By jettisoning the smart TV paradigm, users aren’t subjected to the limited array of apps found on a typical smart TV. And they don’t have to deal with lesser versions of popular ones like Netflix. They can go right on using the ones they already use on their mobile devices. Critically, developers don’t have to consider smart TVs as a platform at all. They can just focus their development resources on the big mobile platforms and know that Google Cast will bring their apps to the big screen, as other manufacturers follow Vizio’s lead.

    All of that said, there are some key limitations to the P-Series, that partly reflect the abundant complexity and competitive dynamics in the larger TV industry. First, the P-Series tablet remote is irrelevant when trying to access pay-TV, which will still require a separate set-top box and remote (though the FCC is trying to crack that nut right now). Second, because Amazon does not have a native Android app for Prime video, all of Amazon’s great video is out of the P-Series’ reach. Third, Vizio made a curious decision not to include a conventional TV tuner in the P-Series, so forget trying to connect an antenna directly to it. And that’s what I can I think of without having even test-driven the P-Series. I’m guessing there are other limitations lurking as well (mainly I’m wondering how responsive the SmartCast app is).

    Regardless, the P-Series offers a fresh take on what a “smart TV” should be and the Vizio team deserves lots of credit for marrying Google Cast with their own hardware. By re-imagining the consumer-facing experience for streaming video, Google Cast and Vizio may have started the process of re-defining the notion of what a “smart TV” really is.