The year TVs got much too complicated

Four competing TV platforms could spell confusion for consumers

A Panasonic TV running Firefox OS on show at CES 2015 in Las Vegas

A Panasonic TV running Firefox OS on show at CES 2015 in Las Vegas

CES 2015 might go down as the moment when TVs became more complicated than they should be.

Seeking to differentiate themselves in a competitive marketplace and give consumers a reason to buy a new TV set, the world's biggest consumer electronics makers are adding apps, streaming services and personalized TV guides to their 2015 models. They say they're trying to make TV simpler for consumers, but ironically are probably adding confusion.

Different TV makers have adopted different operating systems so, just as in the smartphone market, not every app or service will be available on every TV. Some also tie in with cable or satellite services, but support isn't universal, further adding to the confusion.

In demonstrations at CES on Tuesday, support for services like YouTube and Netflix appeared universal across all four competing platforms. But it was unclear whether other services like HBO Go, Amazon Video, sports services like MLB TV and NBA TV, or catch-up TV services like Fox Now or ABC On Demand would be available as apps on all TVs either at launch or later in the year.

The situation has come about in part because many TV makers are keen to stop Google becoming as dominant in TV as it has become in smartphones. Google, which has its own Android TV platform, is one of the competitors, but there are at least three others. Breaking from Google also lets TV makers put their apps front and center on the screen, and allows them to potentially earn revenue from video-on-demand purchases.

Samsung, the world's biggest smartphone and flat-panel TV maker, has thrown its support behind Tizen, an operating system it developed with Intel that has so far achieved little success. LG, another major TV maker, has its own operating system called Web OS. It was originally developed by Palm, which sold it to HP, which later sold it to LG. Panasonic is using Firefox OS, developed by Mozilla, which makes the Firefox Web browser, and already on some entry-level smartphones.

Google's entry into the market will come soon through new TVs from Sony and Sharp. TVs running the Android TV platform will be able to access content through the Google Play store and run Android apps that have been optimized for display on TVs. A Sony spokesman said the TVs will access a dedicated app store with TV-optimized apps, so not every Android app will immediately be available.

The Sony TVs also have a close tie-in with Dish Network, allowing consumers quick access to Dish channels from the TV's main interface. LG TVs have a similar tie-in with DirecTV and was also working with the local cable TV service in Las Vegas.

So as a smartphone-style battle shapes up in the TV industry, where is Apple?

The company launched its Apple TV box in 2007 but from the start then-CEO Steve Jobs termed it a "hobby" -- a project that would help the company figure out how the worlds of Internet and TV would merge, but not a serious challenge to cable or satellite TV.

Apple finally stopped calling it a hobby in 2014, when Apple said the entire Apple TV business -- set-top boxes and content purchases -- surpassed $1 billion in revenue in 2013.

Apple doesn't exhibit at CES, so there were no updates on its strategy this week, but its unlikely the company will be willing to sit on the sidelines if the TV market begins a significant shift. Who knows, it might even rekindle rumors of an Apple-branded TV set.

Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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