An Open Letter to TV Manufacturers

Dear TV Manufacturers,

Mobile ecosystem maths show that we’re living in an Android and iOS world. The numbers here are huge, and there’s no question these two platforms are going to dominate for the foreseeable future.

But on TV, we’re in the “pre-iPhone world” — this fragmented ecosystem looks/feels a lot like mobile before iOS/Android. But that doesn’t mean “create an totally new App Store” is the best way forward (others agree).

People expect all their services on multiple devices, and they’re choosing mobile before other devices in overwhelming numbers. Expecting that every type of device should have its own separate app platform is kind of crazy. Two of my devices already share the same app store (my tablet and my Phone).

I get it. You can’t just be a “glass manufacturer” lest your margins become as thin as your displays. So you build Apps for your TV or invest in putting Palm OS on TVs, and claim TVs as “smart!” But, what really makes a device smart? Is it the fact that you can run apps on it, or the fact that it has sensors and all kinds of other stuff in it that let it interact with the world around it?

####You can learn from what happened in the mobile ecosystem here: the phone isn’t just a phone with an App Store, it’s a collection of sensors and different pieces of hardware that Apple and Google give people access to through their developer ecosytems. Your screens have to appeal to the same developer ecosystem.

AppleTV will keep updating — it will play very nicely with iOS (and probably less nicely with Android). Google already has Chromecast and just released an open SDK that works nicely with iOS and Android. These are companies that know how to create and foster developer ecosystems around their products already, and they’re starting to do it with TVs.

Yes, TV manufacturers, you and Apple are different companies, as Ben Thompson has pointed out. You’ve attempted to achieve software differentiation with software based “App Store” approach, but part of what makes an App Store compelling is access to hardware and freedom for developers to build interesting things. Right now, TV App Stores don’t have this, so they’re nothing more than a facade for apps that have all been built for other types of screens and ported to TV.

Successful app stores are the result of robust developer tools and strong access to hardware components, not the other way around. Instead of focusing on ramming “Apps” for TV down our throats, focus on building tools that let mobile developers take advantage of your screens to do really neat things, and provide a simple and clean user experience on TV. You’re better at making TVs than both Google and Apple. Don’t just build stuff into TVs that make the picture better — think outside the box and make the experience better. Add some sensors, cameras and other hardware that make your products stand out!

What kind of sensors? Here are some ideas:

  • Microphone — Voice input is the remote that most people have. Not an ideal solution for all use cases, but nice to have as an option. Could also be used for automatic volume control, communication apps, etc.
  • Infrared Camera — to be used as a proximity sensor (a-la Kinect). And don’t just give me access to the raw data, how about a well documented SDK that developers can actually use in interesting ways?
  • Camera — obvious applications are video conferencing, but my guess is that this could open up other cool possibilities too.
  • Bluetooth 4.0/LE — Don’t want to sound too much like my friend Steve Cheney here, but iBeacon and Bluetooth LE are a big deal, and not just in local commerce. Let developers play with this stuff in the household, too. Imagine a TV that turns on intelligently when mobile devices are nearby and that plays content related to the person/people nearby (based on mobile device(s)). Add another person/device to the mix, and your content lineup changes accordingly. Change rooms and the TV changes in the next room as you move around.
  • WiFi Router/Repeater — Integrating this with a TV eliminates the need to enter your WiFi password or connect a bunch of cords. It’s clean and it all works out of the box!
  • Digital Antennae — there’s no reason over the air content should require you to buy add-on antennas, and there’s tons of free content available over the air you can unlock for people so that TVs become truly “Plug and Play.”

And at the software level, access to the following would be cool:

  • Onscreen notifications — push from mobile OR push from TV apps. Any mobile app company would want to experiment with this.
  • A “queue” of “video objects” or “collections of video objects” to watch. Work with Netflix, Hulu, Shelby (shameless plug!) and others to let users send their content to this queue so you have the one true Instapaper for video.
  • Ask developers what they want! Get out there and build a relationship with the developer ecosystem and listen to their feedback. There are tons of interesting startups. Work with them to find the components they want access to.

So, Samsung, LG, Vizio and Sony, do you have what it takes to invest in this stuff? It’s not too late, but it might be if you wait any longer. Be bold. Start now. By the time Apple and Google figure out how to launch integrated TV hardware themselves, you’ll have a fighting chance. And as consumers, we’ll all be better off.

PS — I don’t have all the answers, so if you agree or disagree, leave a comment and let me know what you think! I would love for this to be an open discussion.