Are consumers really asking for smart TVs?

Samsung, Toshiba, Sharp, Panasonic -- we've heard from several of the heavy hitters at CES already, and they say consumers want smart TV tech. Really?
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor


LAS VEGAS -- It's only 11:30 a.m. here at the Consumer Electronics Show, but I'm already jaded. 

I've heard from Toshiba and Samsung; Sharp and Panasonic. LG, too. Sony hasn't yet let the cat out of its proverbial bag -- its announcement isn't scheduled until this evening -- but that company has never been one to shock at the biggest trade show in the U.S.

This is the year of the smart TV. And like the best religious missionaries, the executives of technology's biggest companies insist that the way they see the world is the only view worth having: consumers want smart, connected televisions, goshdarnit, and we will give it to them.

The people want to be converted!

We shall save them!

Funny thing about that, though -- I haven't heard too many people asking for these features. Regular folks I've spoken with haven't a clue about the technologies, nor care. And when we write about them here on ZDNet, for our readership of admitted technology aficionados, many of you react in the opposite: you vehemently deny the services. "Give us your highest of definitions and largest of sizes," you say in the comments section of nearly every article on this website, "but take your paws off our broadband Internet connections."

I should be clear here: it's not that connected television technology is terrible. In fact, it's almost definitely the future, and a better one at that. A "dumb" -- that is, not Internet-connected -- electronic device has a frighteningly short shelf-life in the modern age. The various services you can push into the pipeline are too valuable to not have connectivity. (And so are the potential revenues.) And when they fit a distinct need -- maps on smartphones, for example -- we usually like them to the point of addiction.

But that's not the way tech execs are speaking here at CES. The people demand smart TVs, they say. We're only giving them what they want. (Incidentially, they said the same of 3D TV tech last year; automakers have said the same about telematics. Which have both gone over so smoothly!)

I don't mean to be critical; I think the connected television is great. I adore streaming movies on the tube. But like 3D, the message from above is getting muddled already, so early in its infancy. "How will this make TV watching better?" is the question most consumers have in their minds.

"Because 3D," they said last year.

"Because apps," they're saying this year.

I didn't know my TV needed apps. All I wanted was a remote control that didn't require a Ph.D to operate. (Still waiting.)

LG's presentation, held this morning, left a particular impression on me. "We want a consumer's life to be completely stress-free," chief executive Skott Ahn said from the stage. Which is funny, in a way.

Watching television used to be a two-step process: turn it on, find a channel. 

Today's process: turn on the TV with one remote, turn on the cable box with another, change the input (what? I was streaming Netflix from my Xbox last night), open the channel guide, pick the channel, select HD. (And that's without the apps.)

I'll concede: it is a bit unfair to compare TVs of the 1950s with the 2010s. Complexity breeds compexity. But I've never had to be so active to be so passive.

I think most consumers see "smart" TVs and think, "I watch TV to be dumb for a little while. Why can't you leave that alone?" They see electronics companies trying to turn the passive experience of watching television into the active experience of using a computer; turning the television into the modern monitor, which it of course is from a hardware standpoint. And those videos of chicletized, app-heavy menus aren't helping.

"TVs are getting smarter, but the way we're interacting with them is not," LG's Ahn said this morning. I couldn't agree with him more.

Photo: Toshiba's 84-inch 84L9300, one of three 4K TVs the company announced at CES this week. (Toshiba)

Editorial standards