Too Many Boxes

slingbox-SOLO-angleProgrammers who want to put web video on wireless devices have a fairly easy task because they can capture almost all of the app market by working with either Android or iOS. But developing things for home TV is a lot more complicated due to the proliferation of different devices used in the home today to watch web video.

Viewers of web TV have a huge array of potential devices that act as the interface between the web and their televisions. First there are the streaming devices like Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Google Chromecast, and Google Nexus. Then there are the game consoles that support TV such as the Microsoft Xbox, the Sony Playstation, and even older consoles like the Wii. Finally, there is a huge array of smart TVs from every major TV manufacturer like Samsung, Vizio, VG, Sharp, and Sony.

The problem with this plethora of boxes is that there is no standard for the interface, so each one of them has come up with a different interface between the Internet and the big TV screen. There doesn’t seem to be any push in the industry for standardization, probably due to most of the manufacturers figuring they won’t be the big winner if all of the interfaces are made the same.

This is just as confusing for customers because there are nuances to each of these devices that are hard to understand before you buy and use them. Even comparative reviews aren’t helpful because they usually tell you very little about the day-to-day differences between each platform.

One might think that this is a simple issue and that there shouldn’t be much difference. After all, each ofttimes devices is just emulating the same role as the settop box in a traditional cable system. Each system contains what the industry calls ‘middleware’, which is the software that defines the viewer experience. In some of the devices the box plays the role of the tuner (channel changer), the channel guide that lets you decide what to watch, and the general navigation guide that lets you change settings and choose preferences.

There is a wide array of different software platforms for the various boxes, game consoles, and smart TVs. As you might expect, the Google boxes use Android and the Apple boxes use iOS. Samsung uses a Tizen platform that is based on Linux. Sony has developed a proprietary platform used for both their TVs and the Playstation. Panasonic uses Firefox OS. Amazon Fire uses a custom OS called Fire OS.

There has been some shakeout in the industry as boxes that were popular just a few years ago have fallen out of favor with the public. For instance, Boxee and Slingbox were the primary devices used just a few years ago (and many techies still love the Slingbox). But the proliferation of boxes and platforms is inviting a still larger shakeout.

The problem is that every one of these boxes sells enough units to make them profitable and to ensure that nobody controls a big enough slice of the industry to drive other companies to a common platform. The demand for watching web TV is exploding and all of these devices are selling a lot of units every year. Perhaps we are going to have to wait for the market to mature before we see any consolidation or shakeout.

While all these options can be confusing for consumers, the biggest issue with the plethora of boxes is with programmers. Developers of web-based TV packages have the issue of trying to make sure that they work with each of these different devices and operating systems. Once would think that web TV is standard, but it is not. The whole process is software driven and so a web programmer must customize the interface to each of these platforms. That sounds like a lot of lab time and a lot of integration, and worse, it’s never done because each programmer needs to then keep up with software changes on each of the various platforms.

Further, many of these boxes see major upgrades frequently and those upgrades are often not backwards compatible. For example, several CCG staff have Roku boxes, and these have undergone a major upgrade at least every six months, so programmers don’t just have to work on Roku, but they have to work on multiple generations of Roku.

This issue is not part of the investigation at the FCC on how to promote web television, and it probably shouldn’t be. But the issue is a real one and until the day comes when we have standards or until there are only a handful of market winners this is likely to stay a jumbled mess.

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