Is The “Smart TV” Revolution Finally Here?

We’ve been hearing a lot of about TV this past year. Whether it’s “cutting the cord“, or “over-the-top services“, or a zillion other buzz phrases, you can’t read tech press without speculation about the future of connected-TVs. For all the buzz, so far there’s been little advancement.

If you’ve been following such developments as CableLabs OpenCable or Tru2Way, or GoogleTV, or AppleTV, or Boxee, or a zillion other products that I could mention, then you’re probably just as confused as everyone else about where the world is going to go.

The problem? The MSO/MVPDs. The simple reality is that for at least the foreseeable future, the cable companies will continue to control the bulk of the content that you actually care about. And while this is clearly a problem for innovation because of their tight control over the technical ecosystem and limitations of their platforms, we’re at least starting to see the MSOs themselves start to play far more aggressively with tech – case in point such developments as Xfinity’s well-designed iPad app, or U-verse integration with XBOX.

But the unfortunate reality is that there is no content interoperability yet. CableCards and Tru2Way were supposed to solve the problem – opening up the cable system to allow consumer electronic companies to create cool products that had direct access to the cable stream. But, saving for TiVo, very few products ever hit the market. Instead, we’re seeing a rash of so-called “over-the-top” products that interact with the internet but cannot provide the most necessary function to be a killer app – the ability to interact with the content that I actually want to watch!

One fair argument that MSOs make is regarding the cost and complexity of customer service. As anyone with even a slight bit of tech talent knows, most people are pretty bad when it comes to tech support. I’ve certainly done my own share of tech support for friends and family, so I believe there is a legitimate concern to be made about how the carrier can effectively support customers who are using open systems.

The problem is that this argument isn’t new, and the Wireless carriers have already set a precedent. Until the iPhone, the carriers made the same arguments in maintaining their “walled gardens”. Of course that was really just a veiled excuse for their desire to totally control the content ecosystem, and therefore be able to charge for every service (on top of the data charges you’re already paying). And as we know from the Net Neutrality developments, nothing is changing in those regards. But, the dam broke. iPhone opened the floodgates for an ecosystem open to any developer, and showed it can be functional and successful for both consumers and carriers.

Google is attempting to do the same with GoogleTV, but the cable companies are a much harder nut to crack. Mostly because unlike the wireless business, customers don’t select from hardware choices. You have, for the most part, no choice what cable box you get and with what operating system it uses. Getting the cable companies to cede control will be a tremendously difficult task. Of course, it most likely will happen eventually, but how long from now?

Thankfully, seriously big CE manufactures are finally starting to push at the edges. But, once again, each is building their own operating systems with their own interfaces, once again creating a world of competing standards and making it difficult for entrepreneurs to get into the mix and energize the market. Sound familiar? For anyone who build mobile applications before the iPhone revolution, it was a nasty affair of creating about a zillion different app versions for every flavor of phone OS, screen size, etc. You’d end up building twenty version of BREW apps, twenty Java apps, etc. Hopefully the TV manufacturers will be smart, learn from the mobile industry, and skip over that annoying part.

I’ve long been impressed with companies like Boxee. Ever since they walked into my office at Viacom/MTVN years ago while they were in early beta and unknown by the world, I’ve thought they had a great sense of how to evolve the social experience of watching TV. Unfortunately, they too are hampered by their ability to incorporate premium content…

So let’s hope the new year and CES bring some great announcements, pushing forward the future of social and interactive TV.