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Thu Oct 30 15:47:24 SAST 2014

Smart TV is getting smarter all the time

Arthur Goldstuck | 13 February, 2013 15:42
People play games using a Samsung Electronics Smart TV on display in an exhibition hall in Seoul.
Image by: KIM HONG-JI / REUTERS

The speed at which a brand name becomes a generic catch-all term is often an indication of success and progress - but it is also a curse.

The likes of Hoover and Xerox are famed for the volume of legal letters they fire off at media that use "hoovering" and "xeroxing" as verbs with lower-case first letters.

Samsung was the first to name its new generation of internet-connected TVs "Smart TV". But already, a little more than two years after it introduced the concept, the term is becoming generic.

The devices are not yet mainstream in South Africa, mainly because of cost, but that is also changing fast.

It is now almost impossible to buy a TV that is not flat screen. Before long, every flat-screen TV will also have the capability of connecting to the internet. And eventually every internet-connected TV will offer not only the ability to browse the web, but also to download new applications - or what smartphone and tablet users now know simply as apps.

At that point, all TVs will be smart. In lower case.

While Smart TVs from Samsung and smart TVs from Sony have been available in South Africa for some time now, the concept remains confined to the upper end of the market, where budget constraints are not critical. For the average middle-income user, it remains a future technology.

This is a problem for the major TV manufacturers, who know they have only one shot every five to 10 years to win each consumer's wallet. Now, ironically, one of their deadliest competitors may have come to the rescue.

Last month, South Africa finally received Apple TV. Not, as one might expect, a very large iPad on a stand, but rather a small square device that plugs into a TV and connects it to the internet - if the user has set up Wi-Fi as well.

The device itself is not unique. There are several rival set-top boxes of this kind on the market, but Apple TV is the first to be adapted for the South African market. And it is priced at a near-equivalent of the dollar price in the US.

Services available through the device include the video content of YouTube and a movie store from which recent releases can be hired - in South African rands.

Long-suffering South African internet users will instantly spot the error: a couple of downloaded movies and a bunch of YouTube videos in high definition will kill off the data capacity they have on a typical broadband account faster than you can say "limited internet access".

Quite coincidentally, barely a week after Apple TV was launched here, Telkom announced massive cuts in its uncapped ADSL service. For once, the parastatal has sparked a new round in data price wars, as opposed to waiting for its customers to move the market along.

But, considering that fewer than a million ADSL lines have been installed in South Africa, compared with more than six million mobile broadband connections, most consumers are still far from a truly uncapped internet experience.

Digital terrestrial TV (DTTV), the digital transmission of TV signals, which the Department of Communications had originally mandated to happen by 2011, will also make a contribution. The specifications for DTTV set-top boxes include a "return path", meaning an interactive internet connection.

However, DTTV remains bogged down in the dull red tape of bureaucratic sloth, not to mention peripheral demands on both broadcasters and set-top box manufacturers that are clearly designed to serve vested interests.

Despite all these obstacles, Apple TV does point the way to the future. While the clued-up techie is able to "jail-break" the device's internal software - a polite term for adapting systems that are supposed to lock out any such meddlers - to include additional sites, services and apps, the Apple TV system itself will evolve to become broader and more relevant to a mass audience.

That will happen almost in the same breath as bandwidth becoming more plentiful - and cheaper.

As all these factors converge, smart TV will become the potential reality for all TV.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

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