Multiple TV remotes showcase the evils of complexity. Smart TVs just make it worse.


As always, TVs were a big part of this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES). And as expected, Smart TVs had a hard sell. But a Smart TV is the last thing a normal human being needs. I’ve written about TV before, but inspired by a recent Ben Thompson post on the costs of complexity, want to come at it again from that angle.

As we learned from Clayton Christensen and disruption theory, technology gets better faster than customers can adopt. Among many other consequences, this leads vendors to stuff useless features into products to differentiate. That’s why at CES in 2010 the TVs all had 3D. And at CES in 2014 TVs were getting Smart. But watching TV is already far too complicated. I’ve said this before but it bears repeating: in many households only a single person really knows how to power up the TV. And I often see people watching expensive HD TV sets on low resolution channels, or set to the wrong aspect ratio. TV was invented in the 1950s, and has been in widespread daily use ever since. It’s a scandal! Call the usability police.


How did this complexity evolve? One box at a time. Modern TV systems have a receiver, multiple remotes, cable box, game console, TV streaming box (like Roku or Apple TV), plus toss in a smart phone which can double as a controller. Each of these devices is feeling constant competitive pressure to add features. Multiple remotes are the poster children for this evil. But they are mere symptoms. It’s a multiple-box tragedy of the commons.

As a thought experiment, let’s play system designer and pretend we’re living in the future. And for this exercise let’s set aside the fact that cable TV has a lock on content. How do we get the most cognitive simplicity? Minimize the number of smart devices. Maximize the number of dumb ones. And use our remaining smart device[s] to provide a single coherent experience. Let’s consider a couple of possibilities.


One smart device: smartphone. What’s the minimal number of smart devices? The one always in your pocket. Your smartphone. To make this work the TV has to be dumb monitor. Not a Smart TV. Not even something with a TV tuner. Just a wireless monitor (probably with a single wired port as well) that can mirror and play what you send it from your smartphone. In a word, Chromecast. Note that technically this means the monitor is psuedo-dumb, not totally dumb. But that’s ok. We’ll see more and more psuedo-dumb devices in the internet of things era. What we want is the small screen phone to intuitively control the big screen TV. Smartphone as universal remote. With voice control of course. This “dumb” monitor could also be used in the workplace to replace a projector. Or a bit farther into the future, you could walk up to a system, pair it with your phone and a keyboard, and have a full productivity session while leaving your phone sitting in your pocket. In my predictions for 2014 I talked about Apple selling a 4k monitor (not a TV set with a tuner). This is what I meant. TVs have long been commodities, and that will continue as they morph into psuedo-dumb monitors. Don’t make them smart. For lifecycle reasons if nothing else. As Marc Andreessen points out. Though if Apple makes a 4k version it will include Siri voice mics plus a front facing video camera.

Two smart devices: smartphone + Apple TV (or Android clone equivalent). Do we even need a second smart device? Well, yes. If we have a group watching TV, we can’t slave the viewing to a single person’s phone just to get interrupted while she takes a call. We want an independent way to stream content. This means a second device of some sort. What’s the least cognitive load we can put on people to make it easy to use this device? Make it work like your phone. So long term, the market for TV streaming boxes will replicate the structure of the smartphone market. Apple TV premium, customized Android clones at mid/low end. Does this box need an app store? Yes, it’s essential. Roku, TiVo and others need to accept reality and go Android to leverage a scalable app store ecosystem. The app store opens up the complete app experience, which as Ben Thompson points out is far bigger than just watching TV. Games and photo sharing of course, but even regular TV viewing will be improved with apps. In particular we’ll gain social. This will let you share comments with anyone else in your contacts who’s watching the game, flashing snark on the big screen. ESPN will like owning their own social network. A pleasant side effect of this imagined future is it will keep MG Siegler’s sports tweets off twitter.

Is there a case for the complexity and pain of having a third smart device? Not really. So we can dumb the receiver down to a simple power amp. And eliminate the remote controls and cable box. And get rid of the game console, except for retro kids wanting old school games. New school games will be played using a third party controller (or phone as controller) working with your Android or Apple TV box.

Back to reality. How will the transition occur? In many ways we are already there, at least within the current economic model of paying via your cable bundle. Apple TV and similar streaming boxes are already shipping. People already have a choice of watching their HBO or ESPN or MLB content using an app. And Apple TV and Android clones are rapidly grinding their way forward in capability. So what we’re really asking is what would drive unbundling? That is, allowing direct payment to HBO or ESPN to view content using an app, instead of indirectly gaining access by paying through the cable bundle. First, let’s admit this will be a disaster for our current golden age of TV content. In Ben Thompson’s great phrase, cable TV is socialism that works. We all pay our share of the bundle, and the whole is more than the sum of the parts. So once unbundling finally occurs, the existing TV financial model will implode. Naturally the stakeholders are resisting. The way it will play out is that people will watch more and more of their TV content via the superior (especially social) experience of apps. And non-TV apps will continue their rise in entertainment mindshare, replacing traditional TV viewing. But the real key here is simplicity. People know how to launch an app and view content. But they can’t even turn their existing TVs on. So as more content becomes available in “dual mode”, on both cable and via apps, people can choose. And they’ll choose app simplicity. And once people watch 80, 90, 99% of their TV content via apps, cord cutting will happen. Slowly, then all at once. Say 5-10 years.


Postscript: Since this is my third post on TV, I wanted to link to people I’ve learned from.

Update: Later found this excellent Horace Dediu post on Apple TV from Dec 2011.

By Nathan Taylor

I blog at on tech trends and the near future. I'm on twitter as @ntaylor963.


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