Smart TV sets are key to next generation entertainment

Smartphones will trump smart TVs, but will closed video ecologies overcome open systems? “Smartization” might be a new term in English, but it’s already well-entrenched in the Korean and Mandarin languages, judging by what I heard at a recent conference in Beijing.

The occasion was the 8th Asian Media Forum, convened by the Communications University of China in Beijing, and it left this particular delegate with a less than smart feeling.

South Korean experience was at the centre of attention, and not because of the tensions with the North. Instead, and of course, it was because the country is a forerunner in experimenting with multiple patchworks of technologies, services and content.

Tae Hee Lee of the Korean Communications Commission set the tone with a speech on “Convergence and Smart Era”. His country is a world leader in areas like broadband penetration rates (OECD ranking) and E-governance (UN scores). It’s also well-known for e-content exports like dramas and Korean pop, as well as for its ICT products (and not least video games).

From that vantage point, Lee highlighted four distinct, but related, zones of convergence taking place in his country – all of which have major implications for the future of that old media giant, namely television:

  • Service providers (telecoms and broadcasting companies)
  • Services (broadband internet, Voip, cable TV, IPTV)
  • Devices (phones, computers, TV sets)
  • Networks (broadcast, telecoms and cable, plus fixed and mobile)

The country already has extensive fibre to homes, plus widespread wi-fi and 3G coverage, thereby providing Koreans with seamless access to broadband internet. Going forward, MinZheng Song of Korea Telecom told me that Korea was also investing in both LTE for mobile wireless, and Wi-max for fixed wireless.

Lee told how his commission had already licensed IPTV providers in September 2008, and the number of subscribers had rocketed to 2.73m in the next two years. That was a much faster uptake than either cable or satellite TV, although it still represents only 13% of the total market.

He defined IPTV as high-speed internet delivery of multi-media content on user demand, and offering two-way realtime interaction. In practice, the difference between online video like YouTube and IPTV is not a technical one – rather, it’s based on the distinction between short-form clips and fully-fledged TV channels and series being streamed or downloaded online.

The Korean IPTV service includes free and paid-for channels, with both offerings, for example, being purveyed by Korea Telecom which buys the content from broadcast and content companies. There are also IPTV channels supplying for military information and educational opportunities tailored to troops, said Lee.

In 2009, the government kitted out 230 special access spots at military camps, and is currently expanding this “to frontline camps”. A private-sector partnership also now offers two-way customized IPTV educational services to all schools in the country.

But it’s not at all smooth sailing:

  • Korean professor Gwang James Han said that arrival of smart phones in Korea had slowed the uptake of (one-way) mobile TV services (including those via IPTV).
  • Lee said that from 220 000 smartphones in 2008 in the country, there would be soon be six million in use. In the first nine months of 2010, mobile data traffic figures rose from 400 terabytes to 1569 per month.
  • MinZheng Song of Korea Telecom added further that her company’s IPTV offerings are still far from profitable, and that the business is now resorting to a hybrid service using satellite and cable delivery to offer both speed and interactivity.

Professor Han, however, assessed the prospects for IPTV success by pointing out that the mere existence of IPTV did not mean that users would readily participate in it – as opposed, for instance, to them continuing with traditional broadcast TV or engaging with non-TV content when online. For him, the salvation for IPTV, in the sense of heavy-weight TV channels and offerings, would rest in the spread of smart TV sets.

As with smartphones, these new devices are defined as smart if they have general purpose operating systems and web browsers, and if they provide capacity to users wanting to install and run software applications.

With an eye on this scenario, Song said that Korea Telecom is now also offering what it calls “Open IPTV”. This differs from the predominantly walled-garden model of IPTV, in that the service will have an open API that enables consumers and partners to contribute content and applications, via a TV app store, with the company taking 10% of revenues.

According to Prof Han, Samsung and LG already have apps stores for their smart TV sets, along with options for people to use mobile phones as remote control devices. The rise of smart TV apps, he said, would promote augmented reality possibilities, voice recognition and wii-like motion control in relation to video content.

The interest of telecoms and device makers in these developments around “smart television” is monetary. Lee presented a figure that there had been seven billion downloads from the Apple app-store by October this year. “Unlike the current internet environment, the smart environment is expected to create new business models,” he predicted.

But a big challenge in the whole smart TV scenario is that it means that user access to IPTV communications comes to depend on the availability of applications that cover all “N-screens” – or be confined within silos around particular manufacturers or screen sizes.

Lee also referred to a different phenomenon, namely Google’s TV strategy in alliance with equipment makers and pay-TV operators. He described this as a plan to create a global distribution network, complete with subtitling based on Android software, so that Google could build its leadership in TV ads and TV searching markets.

The emerging picture, then, is one of a fragmented universe based on rival alliances around competing models of vertical and horizontal integrations. There will thus be greater and lesser extents of closure on a spectrum that locks in user interaction to particular video content, specific service providers and technically-aligned devices.

Which of these variations will succeed, depends largely on how one defines success.

Yuhui Fu, from China Unicom, argued at the conference that the spirit of the internet should be the standard for judging success. For him, closed loops are not genuine convergence; the open and shared internet needs to be at the core. It’s a sentiment akin to Tim Berners-Lee’s recent criticism of both apps and Facebook worlds.

Meantime, back in South Africa, we’re only just verging on introducing non-smart set-top boxes which will simply decode digital TV signals back to analogue for old-fashioned TV sets.

Unfortunately, there’s been no serious attention to treating the boxes as computers with built-in sim-cards that could allow for interactivity. The horizon for our terrestrial broadcasters has been limited to “dumb” digital migration.

But some South Africans aren’t waiting for mainstream TV to eventually move into smart mode. DStv is now pushing ahead with paid television content for cellphones via 3G, and most recently via digital broadcast to either a smart phone or to a decoder-cum-wi-fi retransmitter (called the “Drifta”).

Vodacom too is now carrying on its 3G service not just some paid DStv channels, but also subscription channels from TV:On Demand! from the UK.

In the end, we won’t catch up with Korea, but we can anticipate that the primary device for receiving, interacting with and creating both video and more extensive “television” content, will be the smart phone.

Will that unfolding televisual world be more-or-less open, or closed? The answer depends a great deal on the “app-ization” of communications in this country. Maybe the success of Mxit could tell us something in this regard.



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