When I was a young programmer in the mid-1990s, a colleague showed me my first Web page. It was, by chance a Star Trek fan page, and my thoughts were, “This World Wide Web thingy is going to be great for Star Trek fans!” I think it’s fair to say I lacked foresight. Within a few years, of course, the Web had revolutionized the way everyone used personal computers and spawned whole new industries. Then, in the early 2000s the Web was introduced to mobile phones and a second revolution began.
The irony of the “mobile” revolution is that, in the developed world at least most people aren’t very mobile at all; they are in fact mostly immobile. We live a sedentary existence, often on the couch in front of the TV to the detriment of our health. According to a recent Nielsen survey, the average person spends a whopping five to seven hours per day watching TV compared to only 45 minutes browsing the Web with PCs, tablets and phones. Ninety-nine percent of U.S. homes have a TV with an average of more than two per household. For these reasons, the next Internet revolution is expected to occur as Web and TV technologies converge and the combined industry players, who don’t give a fig about your health, scramble to capitalize.
However, sales of smart TVs, while strong have not taken off in the same way as smartphones or tablets. And although streaming providers like YouTube and Netflix are revolutionizing content broadcasting, “TV apps” are not popular, and an experience in which the TV and Internet truly converge hasn’t materialized as expected.
This may be because the browsing experience on a smart TV is poor. Using a TV remote controller to navigate is cumbersome, and the TV itself suffers from the so called “10-foot” interface, or the “lean-forward” versus “lean-back” problem — the ergonomics of watching TV content is very different from browsing Web content. In fact, surveys have found that many smart TVs in the home are not even connected to the Internet, and the typical consumer experience is to use the TV for watching TV, and to turn to laptops, tablets or phones for anything that requires interaction. This is, however, about to profoundly change.
The “disrupter” here seems to be Google’s Chromecast device released in July. Chromecast is a dongle device that plugs into the HDMI port of any TV and enables content from a laptop or tablet to be “cast” to the TV. You can surf the Web on your tablet in the normal way, but when you want to watch video content you beam the signal to the superior capabilities of your TV over the home wireless network. In this way, Google has solved the smart TV interface problem by taking the smarts out of the TV altogether. But what really got everyone’s attention is the price. At a mere $35, the device is equivalent to a family trip to the movies.
Chromecast users have found some glitches, and there are grumbles around Google’s method of “intercepting” certain cast requests (such as Netflix). Also, the casting technology isn’t particularly novel; Apple TV supports Airplay (although only for Apple devices) and there are other, equally cheap set-top boxes and dongles being produced out of Asia, which achieve similar results.
Nevertheless, the attention Chromecast has received has energized the thinking here. Significantly, it opens up the capabilities for “second-screen” functionality with associated content displayed simultaneously on both devices, allowing viewers to interact and perhaps influence a live show, or join real-time discussions. Where all of this will eventually lead is anyone’s guess, of course, and I have a poor record of prediction. I guess we will just have to “stay tuned.”