If I asked you to open up Netflix on your TV, how would you go about doing it? Broadly speaking, there are two ways to go about doing this currently. The first is to use a streaming device such as a Roku or Apple TV. The second is to use the built-in Smart TV OS in your TV. Two ways to do the same thing. It is a complexity that has come to be commonplace in modern tech lifestyles, where companies are lobbying for your attention so much that there becomes some overlap between solutions.
We have seen this in smartphones where a company like Samsung will include its suite of apps in addition to Google’s apps creating a certain redundancy for the end-user. Roughly 70% of households own a Smart TV currently, and around 40% of households own a streaming device. This means that there is some overlap with owning two devices that can virtually do the same thing. Why is this the case, and more importantly why do both of these solutions exist at the same time?
Smart TV’s and Streaming Devices by Definition
The easiest way to think about a Smart TV is a traditional TV with an operating system. This means that it can connect to WiFi and download apps to access content, much like a modern laptop and smartphone. This adds a level of features over a traditional TV which for all intents and proposes was a box that was a conduit to connect devices such as DVD players and cable boxes.
A streaming device is a solution that puts the smart components of the TV watching experience on a small device that can be plugged into a TV as long as it has an HDMI port. The benefit of this is that older TVs could now be smart and that one device that is designed to deliver content that can be better and more efficiently updated than most smart TVs.
On the surface, it seems that streaming box solutions were a band-aid of sorts. That during the rise of smart TVs and the growing pains of a new platform that a streaming device would help to ease the transition. However, it has been over a decade since the introduction of smart TVs and these days every TV sold today is a smart TV. Yet despite this, the presence of streaming devices continues to thrive with Google continuing to push Chromecast and Amazon continuing to come out with Fire TV devices.
This has resulted in a world where these two worlds collide constantly, both flawed in their ways. The core issue is that neither the Smart TV experience nor the various streaming solutions seem to support every streaming app that is available today. The solution for most people has become to rely on both solutions in concert. In other words, use the Smart TV for most things but use the streaming device to fill in the gaps.
What is the Point Then?
If it is understood that at some point for most people that a streaming device will need to be purchased in concert with a smart TV then why have a smart TV, to begin with? If all of these smart features could be met using a small streaming device then why bother creating and developing Tizen or WebOS? The answer to that may boil down to something as simple as a convenience. It is a lot more convenient to have apps like Netflix and Hulu available without having to worry about a second remote or switching HDMI inputs.
I talked to 30 people about this subject, and the recurring theme was that using Smart TV apps and experiences only happened out of this said convenience. The ability to quickly access Netflix from your TV remote is very nice. And what has resulted as a sort of side effect of this are TVs that are coming equipped with Roku or Chromecast experiences built-in. This has been a tactic that we have seen on lower-end models from TCL and Sharp.
In my conversations with people that use both set-top streaming solutions in addition to their Smart TV OS, the omission always seems to be around specific network streaming solutions (such as apps from networks like Bravo and FX). This speaks to a fragmentation in the TV space. Currently, the solutions available in terms of software are Tizen OS (Samsung TVs), WebOS (LG TVs), Android TV (Chromecast and Sony TVs), Fire OS (Fire devices and low-end TVs partnered with Amazon), Apple TVOS, and Roku OS (Roku devices and TVs with Roku built-in). So if you are a company like Netflix, there are six versions of your app that need to be updated and maintained just to work properly on all TVs. For a large company like Netflix, this isn’t a big deal but for smaller studios, this is a challenging task. This begs the question of are there are simply too many options in this space?
Looking For a Piece of the Pie
The current status of the Smart TV landscape is a race for eyeballs. Especially since there has been an influx of advertising on these platforms which allows TV manufacturers to continue to monetize on a TV post-purchase. This seems to be the story of electronics these days, as selling the hardware alone is not enough. Also, there need to be recurring revenue streams coming into the company, and for TV makers this revenue stream is built on advertising dollars.
It is for this reason that the streaming device seems to be the better solution. A Smart TV operating system in essence is a tool that offers convenience for the right to deliver ads. On top of this, most streaming devices like Roku and Fire Stick are supported for longer than Smart TV operating systems. The average Roku is supported with new features for 6 years whereas most Smart TVs stop receiving feature additions after two years.
With all this in mind, is there a technical reason to continue having Smart TVs? It has reached a point where it feels that these purpose-built streaming boxes feel like a more complete solution that renders the built-in solutions from Samsung and LG as unnecessary fluff. Why then could we not have a situation where the Smart TV OS was an optional addition? If a Roku or Apple TV is going to be the preferred solution for some, why should a price need to be paid for the development of software that will go unused?
Some applications make sense for owning a smart TV. Samsung TVs for instance play well with the SmartThings platform that the company uses for its connected home products and partnerships. The same goes for LG TVs and the ThinQ connected devices as well. But for the bulk of TV owners, a dedicated box for smart functions makes more sense and removes the redundancy. It is time to come to grips with the fact that smart TVs have become redundant and an option for consumers should be present.