Smart TVs aren't that Smart, but does that matter?

4K TVs are still horrendously expensive. 3DTV is either normalised to where it’s not a buying decision, or something you actively avoid, depending on the upchuck factor. But Smart TVs were meant to be for everybody. Yet apparently most Smart TVs never actually get the “Smart” bit — connection to the Internet — activated. I don’t really think that’s a problem.
Now it does depend to an extent which figures you’re paying attention to. As CNET Australia points out, Analysys Mason’s reseach suggests that over half of Smart TVs never get connected to the Internet at all. Meanwhile, closer to home, Sony Australia’s claim at this week’s 4K TV launch was that around 70 per cent of its Bravia models with Smart features do get connected. Obviously, it’s in the interests of TV manufacturers to make bold claims, but there’s little doubting that a significant proportion of those buying Smart panels don’t take them anywhere near a whiff of ethernet or Wi-Fi.

The traditional reason cited for the lack of uptake has usually revolved around the lack of “killer” applications that’ll hook users in. I’m not entirely sure that’s true, though, because the most important bases are pretty much covered. Sony themselves pointed this out at their launch, with Paul Colley, Sony Australia’s Group Manager of Network Services and Technology, noting that

the reality is that people don’t play with apps on their TV. You might be surprised to know that when people sit in front of TV… they want to watch TV.”

I agree with him; I think catch-up services are where the money is in Smart TV appeal, because that’s the most comfortable way to interact with a TV. Unless you want to go down a cross-licensing model with, say, a console games manufacturer, it’s difficult to make a case otherwise. Although for the Australian consumer, catch-up is a slightly painful affair depending on what you want, with each manufacturer claiming “exclusives” that the others don’t have; if you want Foxtel (via Smart TV), for example you’ve got to be in the Samsung camp. Sony, not surprisingly, is the home of the Crackle and Sony Video Unlimited services. And so on, and so forth.
For what it’s worth, I tend to look for ABC iView and SBS catch-up services and leave it at that, but your tastes may vary. Wake me when the commercial networks wake up to IPTV. I expect to sleep for a while.

Still, I think there’s two fundamental reasons why Smart TV connection rates are so lousy, and they’re both physical factors.
Firstly, there’s the issue of connection. Unless you’re in a relatively new building, or you’re geeky enough to have wanted it already, most homes don’t have ethernet ports in the living room. Yes, Wi-Fi is rather pervasive, but Wi-Fi in many houses is flaky, and it’s not something that Mr or Mrs Joe Average really wants to fiddle with. If I’m being honest, wireless networking isn’t something I want to fiddle with either, but they keep pulling me back in*
Even if they do leap the Wi-Fi hoops, a flaky connection — or another member of the family doing something intensive online can render the whole experience moot. Map that in with apps that don’t do much more than your average tablet or smartphone — only worse — and you’ve got a recipe for apathy.
Speaking of apathy, though, there’s a secondary problem, and it’s at retail. I’ve got to go slightly anecdotal here, because I’m sure there have been millions spent at various times advertising Smart TVs via splashy ads, cardboard stands and the like. But when you’re faced with a row of TVs in JB Hi-Fi, Harvey Norman or wherever, you’re typically looking at a small sticker detailing price and features… and not much else. Almost all of the time, there’s no available ethernet connection there either, so it’s not like the staff could demonstrate the features anyway.
As an absolutely personal anecdote here, a couple of months ago I (along with my siblings) purchased my mother a new TV set as an ad-hoc surprise birthday present. That was an in-store purchase, because it needed to be handed over on the day, and the best available price on the day happened to be a Sony TV set. Right next to it was a Samsung Set that proclaimed (on the tiny sticker) that it was a “Smart TV”. That’s it. Nothing else to explain the concept, or the slightly higher price sticker. I figured that my mother, love her as I do, probably wouldn’t extensively use a Smart TV beyond a bit of iView catchup, so it wasn’t a key buying decision. Then again, the idiot salesperson tried to do me a “deal” on an extended warranty, noting that “a cheap TV like that only has a 1 year warranty under Australian law”.
What utter, utter horse manure. I used words… to that effect with him, because it’s not true; Australian consumer law states that a product should last “a reasonable time” based on its price. No set period, but does anyone, anywhere in Australia buy a TV thinking they’ll be replacing it within twelve months?
No, I didn’t think so. But I’m digressing. Given his shocking incompetence in this area (JB Hi-Fi Park Beach Plaza Coffs Harbour, if anyone’s interested), I wouldn’t want to guess that he knew anything about Smart TVs at all anyway. Said TV was purchased and installed that afternoon, at which point I realised that around the back… was an ethernet port.
One quick homeplug installation later, and my mother could indeed watch a little iView at her leisure. The thing is, there was nothing on the display to indicate the Smart TV features of this particular panel, and I didn’t look at the back before purchasing, because, frankly, I knew that it’d have the minimal connections needed for this particular case. I wonder how many Smart TVs are out there sans connection simply because either the consumer didn’t know, or the salesperson either didn’t know or couldn’t be bothered to point it out?
Still, I didn’t buy that panel for Smart TV anyway, and I think that’s the key thing. Just as with 3D TV, it’s the quality of the panel that ultimately matters, because nobody’s going to spend huge quantities of time interacting with Smart features. They’re going to spend it watching TV, and as such, if guess-your-own-percentage of Smart TVs remain lobotomised, that’s not really that much of a problem… unless you’re a TV manufacturer.
*I’m getting too old for this… etc…
Image: Sony

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