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At CES, a TV Disconnect

By Greg Scoblete


The Consumer Electronics Show isn't known for producing cognitive dissonance (sore feet are another story). But walking the show floor and keeping half an eye and ear tuned to the media frenzy that follows in its wake, it wasn't hard to find it in abundance -- at least around television.

Take what was arguably the show's biggest trend: the emergence of 4K (aka UltraHD) televisions. From the established TV leaders like Samsung, LG and Panasonic to upstarts such as Hisense, enormous 4K TVs dominated the show floor.

For the uninitiated, 4K TVs deliver twice the resolution as HD TVs, so the picture is ultra-sharp. It also enables televisions that are enormous -- think 110 inches, or more TV than anyone really needs at the moment.

Sure, 4K TVs are currently priced for the one percent (Sony's 4K OLED TV, for instance, will set you back a cool $12,000), but TV manufacturers are clearly banking on 4K to generate the sales and enthusiasm that 3D TV manifestly failed to deliver.

Yet if you walked a bit further away from the glaring exhibits into meeting rooms and more modest booths a far different picture of TV emerges -- one not obsessed with high resolution and mammoth screens but low resolutions and small screens.

When it came to pay TV providers (think DirecTV and Comcast) and the companies, like Cisco and Akamai, tasked with actually delivering video content to the home, 4K was barely on anyone's lips. The only 4K video service announced was a satellite test channel in Europe. In fact, the discussion among pay TV providers wasn't about how to ram higher quality video into the home but how to shrink down and disperse existing HD video to multiple, lower resolution, mobile screens.

Dish's big CES news, for instance, was the addition of its Sling technology to its Hopper DVR (you know, the product that CNET is not allowed to rave about), allowing subscribers to access live TV and DVR content on mobile devices away from home. Dish executives echoed other pay TV providers in hailing the emergence of "TV everywhere" -- a world where your tablet and smartphone are both a portal and platform for viewing and interacting with your favorite shows.

Cisco's introduction of Videoscape Unity -- the next iteration of its video delivery infrastructure and service platform -- focused exclusively on personalized content and "second screen" functions, such as using a tablet as a remote. Set top box makers like Cisco and Pace and their chip suppliers, like Broadcom and Marvell, were promoting media gateways -- devices that could distribute cable or satellite TV to multiple digital devices in the home, regardless of the resolution of the screen. All of these technological innovations hinge on, among other things, downsizing video so it will stream smoothly and cleanly onto smartphones and tablets.

If 4K is the next big thing, in other words, someone forgot to tell some of the key players.

That doesn't mean 4K is doomed to irrelevance (even if it is unnecessary). Unlike 3D, 4K is more likely to catch on since it at least delivers some enhancement over the current experience, but the near-term future of TV has more to do with tablets, smartphones and mobile viewing than with ultra high resolution displays.

Then there were the "smart TVs." While not new to CES by any means, TV makers made another big push to sell the public on the idea that their TV had to be "smart" - i.e., connected to the Internet and able to run apps just like your smartphone. Panasonic's press conference featured a demonstration of photo editing directly on a TV with a stylus. I can't confirm this, but I have to guess that any parent in the audience must have been grimacing at the thought of their children wading up to their 60-inch plasma, stylus in one hand, three snack bags worth of Dorito crumbs on the other.

Smart TVs, like 4K TVs, are another solution in search of a problem. There's no reason (other than obvious attempt to lard on features) to build intelligence into a TV when the same set of features can (and are) baked into far less expensive media players like Roku and Apple TV. Unlike the $1,000 "smart" TV sitting in your entertainment center, the $99 Apple TV can be easily replaced when it becomes obsolete or ceases to work properly. With the exception of voice commands, which could prove useful, most "smart" technology can be served up via other means (indeed, most pay TV providers will be rolling out customizable menus and intelligent content aggregation this year making those features somewhat redundant on the TV itself). If consumer surveys are to be believed, the vast majority of consumers don't even bother with most of the "smart" features.

So while TV makers invariably want to convince you that bigger and smarter is better, don't believe it. The near-term future of TV is small and dumb.

Greg Scoblete (@GregScoblete) is the editor of RealClearTechnology and an editor on RealClearWorld. He is the co-author of From Fleeting to Forever: A Guide to Enjoying and Preserving Your Digital Photos and Videos.

Greg Scoblete is the editor of RealClearTechnology.

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