The feature phone era of TVs ends next week

Written by Jason Grigsby on

Three years ago after writing Head First Mobile Web with Lyza, I was burnt out on mobile and wanted to do something different. So I decided to start researching the web on TVs.

TVs seemed like the furthest thing from mobile devices. Before his death, Steve Jobs had told his biographer, Walter Isaacson, that he had “finally cracked” TVs. Rumors were flying that Apple was getting into TVs in a big way.

Photo of TV

So I set off to find out what it might be like to design and build for the web on TVs. I’ve given a few talks on TVs and it has shaped the way I look at the web.

But I’ve never found the time to write about it. With Apple rumored to release its new Apple TV next week, it seemed like the right time to share what I’ve learned.

When I’m looking at TVs and what is possible on them, it doesn’t matter much to me whether the features are being provided by a set top box, game console or the TV itself. I realize that is different when someone makes a purchasing decision.

I’ve focused on Smart TVs because Anna Debenham has done extensive testing on game consoles already and there is less known about Smart TVs. But most of what I’ve found still rings true when I’ve tested game consoles and set top boxes.

No one knows what they’re getting when they buy a Smart TV

The first thing I learned about TVs is how incredibly difficult it is to find TVs that you can test on. Best Buy has walls of TVs, but only three of them had accessible remote controls and were on the Internet.

I fared a little better at Fry’s where the TVs had remote controls, but no Internet. So I tethered the TVs to my phone and watched them start downloading long-overdue software updates:

One of the many TVs that updated firmware using my phone's connection

Eventually, I found a local store, Video Only, that had TVs on WiFi. They’ve been great. I’ve returned every year bearing a box of donuts and a series of tests to conduct.

I drove to several stores before I found one that made it easy to test the smart features of these TVs. Average consumers won’t do this. They have no idea how what their Smart TV can do nor how well it does it before they buy it.

Smart TVs are computers, but no one sells them that way

The discovery happened by accident.

I was at Best Buy using the only TV that was on the Internet that had a remote. I was digging around in some of the Smart TV settings when I happened to notice a tiny progress bar in the lower right corner:

Surprising storage usage indicator

Wait… what? This TV has a storage limit?

Of course it makes sense that the TV would have a storage capacity. The reason why this surprised me is because I had not seen a single sales tag or spec sheet list the storage capacity of the TV.

Even today TV manufacturers will brag about their app stores, they will tout their fancy Octo-core processors, but they don’t list the basic storage capacity.

Good luck even finding the name of the operating system they are using let alone what the current version is.

These TVs are computers. They have downloadable apps. They have various CPU speeds. They have storage limits.

And yet, not a single store nor manufacturer sells them as if they were computing devices. I’m not saying TVs should be sold like a Windows machine, but there is no difference between how TVs are sold now than how they were sold in the 80s.

There is no Smart TV market

Because I spent hours testing TVs in the stores, I was able to observe dozens of people shopping for TVs. In all that time, I never heard a single person ask specifically for a Smart TV.

They asked if the TV supported Netflix.

Remote control with Netflix button

Sometimes they would ask about Hulu or Amazon Video. But they’d never dive deep into the Smart TV features. Even at Video Only where the TVs were on WiFi, only a small percentage of people would ever check out the Smart TV menus.

So while it is difficult to find TVs that don’t have some Smart TV capabilities, I don’t believe you can have a Smart TV market when no one knows what they’re buying and no one is asking for Smart TV features.

Web rendering on TVs is surprisingly capable

I’m going to go into more detail about what I found when testing browsers on TVs another day, but the short version is that the rendering engines on Smart TVs are generally equivalent to same era iPhones.

Both the 2015 LG and Samsung TVs have higher scores on HTML5Test than my iPhone 6 running iOS 8.4.1 does.

2015 LG TV scores 495 on

That’s not to say that the web browsing experience is necessarily good. It can be clunky especially if the remote only features a d-pad. But in general, the problem isn’t the rendering engine.

Input remains the biggest challenge

The moment you move away from changing channels and start interacting with the Smart TV functionality, input becomes the biggest challenge. Remote controls are cumbersome and crude input devices.

Over the years I’ve seen TV manufacturers try all sorts of ways to make remote controls better including:

Sony Google TV remote featuring keyboard on back, touch pad on front, and every button you could ever want.

  • Full keyboards
  • Miniature keyboards
  • Motion detection
  • Gesture
  • Touchpads
  • Voice control
  • Smartphone apps

To their credit, TV manufacturers keep looking for ways to make input work better. But no one has cracked it yet.

The Feature Phone Era of TVs

The more I studied TVs, the more I was struck by the similarity between the TV market of today and the phone market before the iPhone was released.

Timeline of phones showing how they changed after iPhone release

Before the iPhone came out, nearly every phone manufacturer had their own operating system. It was often hard to know what the operating system was called and what version you were using.

Input was difficult, slow and frustrating. People advised those who built for phone to keep in mind the mobile context.

Companies touted the ability to install apps and browse the web, but the experience was terrible so few used those features.

The phone manufacturers believed they had a mature market and that they understood what people wanted from their phones. They laughed at the optimism for the iPhone saying that browsers have been on phones for years and no one used them.

There are echoes of each of these in the current TV landscape. And again Apple stands poised to enter the market in a big way led by what sounds like an innovative form of input.

Will Apple pull it off? I don’t know.

But I can tell you one thing, I’m ready for the feature phone era of TVs to end.

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