A Curved Screen Skeptic Takes a Closer Look

Sometimes it can be helpful to make a snap judgement on a particular innovation, just to keep from getting overwhelmed in today’s tech frenzy. For me, it was the curved screen that earned my instant skepticism. Cool? Sure. But I didn’t see the urgency; the flat screen still felt modern, delivered a wonderful picture and the joy of extra space gained from tossing the old box was still reasonably fresh in my mind. The curved screen struck me more as innovation for innovation’s sake, an upgrade designed for the upgrade-obsessed, and left me pondering if it was possible to run out of great ideas.
Then, when I realized the natural moment for my next phone upgrade was approaching, I found myself face-to-face with the Samsung Galaxy Edge. Lo, the curved screen was calling! But, before I could answer, I had to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. (And, yes, drop a few puns.)
This modern innovation—gimmick? innovation?—went beyond mobile phones, so I decided to start with large screens. When it came to curved televisions, it was easy to see that I wasn’t alone in my skepticism. Numerous reviews panned the “immersive” curved television display as a gimmick, while others pointed out that the curve could compromise viewing from certain angles. It’s not hard to imagine that if your reclining chair is over in that far corner, to the side of the TV, that curve is going to get in the way, but Casey Johnston of Ars Technica offered a rather detailed analysis of the field of view. It seemed that the curve most benefited from theater-style seating and, according to fellow skeptic Scott Kramer of Forbes, “You’d need a very large model — at least 70 inches — to really make the concept even work. Anything smaller and the vibrancy and immersion just aren’t compelling factors.” Cue Roy Schieder: “We’re going to need a bigger apartment.”
So my initial doubts about the curve seemed validated where TVs were concerned. Monitors, however, were a different story. The “immersive” benefits of curved screens fared better in the one-person-per-screen scenario, where you were less likely to be sitting off to the side while playing games and streaming.  As noted in this article, “the natural presentation and field of view supplied by these devices reduce neck and eye strain”, so there would be productivity benefits for the business environment as well. (Though both points make sense to me, as someone who is attached to the web for the better part of her waking hours, the thought of the telltale screen curving in closer and closer struck me as horror movie material.) But general receptivity to curved monitors aside, the fact that monitor sales, in general, are dipping along with PC sales means that they won’t likely be the driving force behind the curved revolution.
That led me back to mobile devices. Despite the buzz, curved mobile phones aren’t actually that common. Samsung was (ahem) ahead of the curve, with LG not far behind. And sure, it was a clear differentiator in a sea of iPhones, but could the curve do anything? Early curvers, Samsung Galaxy Round and LG Flex, opted for opposite approaches (side to side and head to toe body curves, respectively) and promised – yes – an immersive experience. The curved body also performed better in pocket, because it aligned better with the curve of the human form. The Edge had a different approach, with the display wrapping around the sides of the device. My first (skeptical) take was that the Edge chose style over function, but then I discovered that the extra real estate served a few functions beyond aesthetics, including a colored light indicator that could tell you who is calling when the phone is face down. Meanwhile, Cool? Sure. Urgent? Well…
At this point, I had reached the limits of online product research. The claim of the curve clearly went beyond specs, so I brought my skepticism to in-store, imagining the satisfaction of telling the Best Buy clerk that I was only doing research—I wasn’t someone who was taken in by innovation for innovation’s sake. Except that, when I reached the curved screen TVs and stood in front of their promotional solar system graphics, I couldn’t help myself: I nodded my head and my lips formed the word: “Immersive.” I was getting sucked in. By the time I reached the mobile section and plucked the Samsung Edge from its display podium, it struck me as mobile’s equivalent of an infinity pool. Cool. Serene. Desirable.
And this is where the aforementioned snap judgements come in handy. There is, simply, an incredible range of products to pine over today but, if you decide out of the gate that a particular innovation is a gimmick, it’s a lot easier to avoid that whispering want. As of the writing of this article, I have not (yet) upgraded my phone, and my television is still flat. But, I confess, I do see the appeal for the curved screen. Features and functions aside, its real strength is that it is a delight to view. And while “delight” doesn’t necessarily translate to urgency, that ever-important factor needed to drive up sales right this minute, isn’t that exactly what you want from something that’s designed to be viewed?

Key strategies for the future of smart TVs

Just a year or two ago, the world of TV manufacturers was focused on transitioning from the tired horse of HD to the fresh legs of 3D. Then TV OEMs realized they weren’t on the cusp of a huge upgrade cycle, and the allure of 3D faded. At the same time, an entirely new business model — one with potentially recurring revenues — became available: the smart-TV market.

But while many consumers today are buying new smart TVs, many aren’t connecting them. Much like with past technologies, the smart-TV market has some significant challenges if it is to reach the promise that many believe it holds.

Missed connections

One of the biggest problems with new connected-device categories is that they require too much knowledge on the part of the end user when it comes to actually connecting the device. Media Center PCs and digital media adapters are just two examples of connected devices that largely failed because setup experiences were too difficult and ultimately didn’t provide the perceived value to consumers.

To avoid this pitfall, TV OEMs need to make connecting the box to the network both easy and a necessity. That means making setup very simple and also rewarding the consumer. OEMs could accomplish the latter by offering free rentals, pre-installing popular apps like Netflix or Hulu and giving actual rewards.

Price subsidies also incentivize a connection. For example, offer a 5 percent or 10 percent discount on the price of the smart TV if the consumer connects and registers it online. While this may seem like a steep cost, TV OEMs need to realize that the return horizon on these devices is years; ensuring that consumers get connected dramatically raises the likelihood of monetizing them through connected services.

Two screens are better than one

Just having a TV on the network isn’t enough, particularly since tablets and other mobile devices are becoming central controllers for the connected lifestyle. TV OEMs must work on developing well-executed controller apps for their devices that leverage all the popular tablets, either by promoting Google TV or other “platform” apps or creating their own remote-controller apps that drive engagement through interaction with TV shows and TV apps.

However, simply relying on Google or others to develop a second-screen app isn’t enough. TV OEMs need to provide their own second-screen apps that offer unique ways to leverage the built-in functionality of their smart-TV device. Samsung has started to do this with its Smart View app, allowing users to stream TV content to a phone or tablet and browse apps and show info.

Continuous upgrades, continuous experience

One of the biggest failures of connected devices is atrophy of the device, where new functionality and continuous enhancements are not offered on a regular basis. Most TV OEMs rely on third parties for software like Google TV; the world of interactive software is not their “home turf.” With connected devices, continuous upgrades to the user experience are a requirement for success.

Smart-TV OEMs must view their devices as continuous investments rather than one-year product SKUs. This is a completely different mindset, one more aligned with products like game consoles and smartphones than TVs. But it is necessary if they expect to transition to a model that derives significant revenue streams for the life of the device (the goal, in many ways, of moving to smart TVs).

This means investing more heavily in software development than in the past. It also means pushing new “generations” of the software with regularity, whether through the underlying platform (be it Google TV or another platform) or the TV OEM’s native software.

All these suggestions clearly drive home one point: If TV OEMs are going to embrace smart TVs, they need a business model that fits this new paradigm. Up-front, one-burst revenue models are being replaced by longer-term, services-oriented relationships. The key to success in this new world is ensuring that new smart-TV owners are connected and engaged, and that they stay engaged for the life of the device.

Question of the week

Will smart-TV OEMs adjust their business models to fit the longer-term return cycle of new connected devices?

Today in Cleantech

Looks like the box on top of your TV is a worse energy waster than your refrigerator, or even your air conditioner. That’s the surprising w0rd from a Natural Resources Defense Council report (PDF) covered by the New York Times on Sunday, which recorded a surprisingly high power draw for the 160 million or so cable TV boxes  and digital video recorders now plugged in at American homes. Why are these boxes so much more power-hungry than their larger appliance cousins? Because they’re turned on 24 hours a day, cranking away with their digital components, even when they’re not needed. Sounds like a problem that the set-top box makers should be tackling — but manufacturers are reluctant to add standby and sleep modes to their devices, in fear that the time they take to get up and running will frustrate customers. Regulations in Europe give set-top box makers incentive to build in these energy-saving features, but in the U.S., the EPA’s Energy Star rankings for set-top boxes don’t mention standby energy efficiency. Perhaps home energy management platforms that attempt to choke off appliance vampire power use via smart power strips or wall plug adapters could take up some of the slack?

Inside the ultra-high-speed wireless home wars

The clear winner of the home networking wars of the last few years has undoubtedly been Wi-Fi. The sheer number of Wi-Fi embedded devices, from laptops to smartphones, is being increasingly joined by pack of new consumer electronics device categories with Wi-Fi, such as Smart TVs and OTT set tops, which means the technology isn’t going anywhere soon. But it’s not without its limitations, and a pack of new technologies could serve as more capable replacements.

Why the TV World Stayed 2-D and Got Smart Instead

One year ago, TV manufacturers planned a coming-out party for 3-D TV that would ignite another television upgrade cycle. Fast-forward to CES 2011 and it’s as if the standard is already forgotten. And while smart TV is still in its early stages, the ultimate promise of the transforming the TV to a service platform holds much more potential long-term than 3-D.

Could We Eventually See Facebook TV?

Google may have grabbed headlines this week with its TV offering, but a more intriguing nugget to ponder is whether or not Facebook would ever pursue the path to the living room. The answer could just be yes, as the TV screen seems too big a honeypot to ignore for a company that lives on advertising dollars.

Today in Social

Today’s big news has to be Google’s launch of Google TV at its I/O developers’ conference. After months of rumors, the company finally revealed its plans for both an embedded service — which will appear in certain TV sets from Sony — as well as a standalone set-top box that will connect to most televisions and blend web services and online video with regular TV content, even allowing viewers to watch a Web video in one frame and regular TV in another. Is it the future of television? Nilay Patel from Engadget is less than impressed, calling Google TV “like a VGA cable, only more complicated,” while Tech writer Ed Bott wonders whether Tivo — the company that invented the smart set-top box — is looking at Google TV and checking its patent portfolio.

Today in Cleantech

Today, the electronics industry is keeping a close eye on a hearing on mandatory TV energy efficiency standards that is being held by the California Energy Commission. The Consumer Electronics Association has voiced its opposition, citing potential job losses and higher costs that will end up getting passed onto consumers. It will be interesting to watch this unfold since several of its members like Samsung (a maker of efficient LED-backlit TVs) can’t help but publicize their green credentials these days.

How Much Web Do You Want on Your TV?

One of the big trends to emerge so far this year is the connected television set. Just about every big TV manufacturer is coming out with a set that plugs into the web to deliver news, social networks and even over-the-top video to the big screen. But while we’re getting drips and drabs of online capabilities by way of widgets and such, we don’t have full web browsing access on our TVs yet, and that’s on purpose.

The lack of full Internet functionality stems from a combination of factors, according to an excellent write-up in today’s New York Times on the state of the browsable television, among them price, the fear of your TV “crashing,” and whether or not people even want browse the web on their TVs. From the article:

“Sony’s stance is that consumers don’t want an Internet-like experience with their TVs, and we’re really not focused on bringing anything other than Internet video or widgets to our sets right now,” said Greg Belloni, a spokesman for Sony. Widgets is an industry term for narrow channels of Internet programming like YouTube.

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