This article first appeared in Broadcast Magazine on 25th Janaury 2019
Its that time of year again – CES. A hundred thousand people descend on Las Vegas to revel in new consumer technology, try and make sense of hundreds of corporate announcements and rack up our first expenses for the year. For the TV industry a show like CES is a mixed bag. Large parts of the show are irrelevant to our day to day. As well as TV, it covers health tech, car tech, drone tech, ed tech, sex tech and various other ‘tech’ areas where you might not have anticipated a tech intervention.
For the TV industry the show splits between device innovation and commercial announcements. Some companies even manage both. But before experiencing a single piece of tech you become aware of the politics of this kind of show just walking around Las Vegas looking at the billboards and the sponsorships. Apple never turn up, preferring to do their own announcements in their own venue. Even so, this year they managed to be present on various stands and even took a poster site outside the main venue with a sarcastic message targeted at other phone users. In the sections of the show dedicated to Smart Home tech, there were also multiple ‘works with Apple HomeKit’ labels attached to stands. They were on the TVs as well, in a more limited way as they announced partnerships and distribution deals with TV manufacturers.
Two years ago, with the launch of the Alexa, Amazon managed to pull the same trick – putting their devices and logos onto 500 stands without actually having their own presence. This year, Amazon took a small exhibition hall in the Venetian to explain the breadth of their tech and services offering. In response Google took over the whole town.
It felt like every major digital poster and sponsorship opportunity in Las Vegas had been taken over by Google, including the inside and outside of the monorail – even the recorded announcements on the monorail started with a ‘hey Google’ message. Outside the convention centre Google built their own pavilion with demonstration kitchens, theatres, car ports and a ‘Google Experience’ ride. Inside the convention centre they flooded the floor with Google clones dressed in Google boiler suits and woolly hats. 1800 stands had some form of Google presence on them, with 200 of them having Google manned demo rooms bolted onto the main stands. The message was that Google are coming for every part of your home.
What is clear is that the tech industry is trying to make sure our homes are ready to accept them. A consistent theme around the show this year was screens built into the most unlikely places. Before PCs and smart phones, TVs were our only screen. Now they are ubiquitous. CES showed us that any flat surface – fridges, cooker hoods, mirrors etc can be made into a screen that can run telly. Netflix on a mirror next to your bath? Amazon Prime on your shower screen? Clearly TV has a role in the smart home of the future but there isn’t much we need to do to play in this world. In Smart Homes it feels TV is a passenger on someone else’s journey.
Where we are on more familiar ground is on the TVs themselves. The mantra this year from the TV manufacturers was the same as it is every year – bigger, thinner, smarter, sharper. The signature gateway into the show is always the LG TV wall – 200 flat screen TVs linked together into an overwhelming waterfall of 8K content that you have to walk through and under to enter the show. It is a perennial demonstration of why TV always provides the figurative ‘sex’ at CES and why so many devices and innovations want our content on them.
Beyond the LG stand, most manufacturers demonstrated gorgeous 4K and 8K screens of increasing size and refinement. However, these were often coupled with utterly pointless ‘features’ to try and stand out from the crowd. We saw bendable, foldable and rollable TVs – all promoted as ‘benefits’ but really just attempts to mitigate the awkward fact that TVs are getting too big to fit into an average home. They also haven’t shed the nasty habit of including Netflix, and now Amazon Prime, buttons on their remote controls, demonstrating how the tech giants are trying to buy their way to dominance through tech deals.
A second major theme was TV software integration with the virtual assistants. Last year we were told that TVs could ‘talk to Alexa’ with a software patch. This year we were told that Alexa had been built-in to their core software. Most TVs now include a microphone and have software from Amazon, Google and in a few cases Apple, to ensure integration with the emerging voice landscape.
Clearly these deals include the requirement to have their logos on exhibition stands, not just remote controls, and many TV stands trumpeted their tech partners with stickers from each of the major ones. Samsung TVs went further than just assistant integration and included Apple AirPlay software, alongside its native casting software. As a result, Samsung were the furthest down the road to the ‘any content on any device’ vision.
A consistent theme throughout the show was the increased co-operation between the major players. Samsung demonstrated this by showing an iTunes app integration on their Smart TVs. This sat alongside the existing apps from Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu etc and showed that we are all on a journey towards every app on every device. The fact that Apple have felt the need to join in highlights the weakness in their TV device and service strategy to date. We were teased with an impending Apple SVOD service announcement, but the app didn’t appear at the show. We can only assume it will follow iTunes onto Samsung TVs before spreading out onto every other major brand. This will be as meaningful as Netflix arriving on Sky, but with global importance.
The TVs were interesting from a content presentation point of view. Samsung and LG are still pursuing their own operating systems and so were showing off menu designs that have borrowed heavily from the graphically rich Netflix approach. Some of the many Chinese manufacturers had bought their way into the market by adopting other software. TCS were showing their Roku TVs. However, the dominant software in TVs was Google’s android TV. This has become the default TV software for any company without its own software strategy, and gives Google an increasingly powerful gateway role for TV. Your app and content now need to be Android compatible or you aren’t in the game. It also puts TV at the heart of Google’s wider smart home strategy as all these TVs come ready to talk to Google Home and Nest.
One of those companies pursuing its own TV strategy was Amazon. With Prime now ubuiquitous on other devices, Amazon were showing off their own TV kit. Having shown they can build screen devices with their Kindle strategy they now targeting the big screen. In the US they have been trialling their own TV’s, made by companies like Toshiba, and running the FireTV software that runs in their sticks and mini-boxes. Their vision is an Amazon TV in the main room of your house and a stick plugged into every old TV in the other rooms. All plugged into Alexa and your ecommerce account.
They also demonstrated their new FireTV PVR. This is quite a shocking departure for a company that is so integral to the rise of on-demand TV. It has pioneered VOD through its own Prime service, and by hosting so many other VOD services on its own AWS platform. So to launch a broadcast recorder is really interesting statement about the TV market. It shows a pragmatic understanding that over-the-air broadcast is not going away anytime soon. It also shows an understanding of the power of local storage of recordings – particularly given the patchy quality of broadband in key markets like the US and the UK. Expect an Amazon Home Media server with integral PVR capability this year.
Stepping back from the details of the devices and the deals, the message CES gave the world is that TV is still at the heart of the tech revolution but new players are beginning to drive it. Pragmatism is breaking out between these tech players meaning content, apps and tech is increasingly shared and interoperable. The TVs that a consumer will buy in the shops will be increasingly competitive with the set top box based services from the pay platforms but are increasingly plugged into a global network of smart home, artificial intelligence and e-commerce software. For the consumer this is a fantastic outcome, but the global scale of these deals puts pressure on UK-only players.
This article first appeared in Broadcast Magazine on 25th Janaury 2019