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Smart TVs become next front in OS battle few asked for

An explosion of operating system choices has appeared at CES 2015 -- a shame that it is in an area where agility does not occur, and stability is key.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

In a world of annual release cycles, subjectively decreasing software quality, and questionable updating practices, creating a battle of operating systems in the realm of televisions is a particularly head-scratching development.

The problem when it comes to trying to push the idea of smart TVs is that the ecosystem is already full of capable devices such as gaming consoles, Apple TV, and Chromecast sticks; and given the existence and abundance of such devices, what is the use case that a smart TV is trying to fill?

For instance, in the six-year life of my very-nice-but-thankfully-dumb Panasonic TV, I have used three different consoles, a similar number of laptops and wannabe media centre desktops, and now a Chromecast to stream and mirror content onto the TV.

At the time that I purchased the device, Android 1.0 had just appeared, and the state of iOS was such that it was still called iPhone OS and the iPhone 3G was Apple's current pride and joy.

After years of faithful service, there is nothing wrong with my 2008-vintage Panasonic, but the idea of having it run a similarly aged stripped-down OS, of any kind able to be labelled "smart", is one that fills me with dread.

While it's possible that the TV could have been updated over the years, there's no guarantee that functionality or stability would be maintained. Since the usage patterns of TVs are much simpler than those found on smartphones and tablets, any degradation in functionality is more likely to be catastrophic.

In the most recent Lollipop 5.0.1 update, some Nexus 4 users reported a problem with audio during calls. While this doesn't render a smartphone completely unusable, imagine the vitriol if audio on a TV became patchy after an OS update.

Few of the operating systems due to find their way into upcoming TVs have shown themselves to be rock solid, let alone the vendors: Samsung has had issues with QR codes initialising a remote wipe of its handsets in the past, and now wants to bring Tizen back from the grave; LG was caught out sending TV usage information back to its servers last year; and Firefox OS hardly has a name for performance after its initial handset releases.

With the need for a solid foundation, it would be easy to suggest that TV makers focus on creating good panels, and leave the smart part of the equation to the media boxes and sticks of this world -- but as CNET pointed out last year, the high end of the market is going to get smart TV functionality regardless of whether it likes it or not.

Come my next TV purchase, I really do not want to have to consider the pros and cons of Android TV's integrated Chromecast functionality, or Mozilla's philosophical decisions, nor which codecs are supported on a particular set, or the security record of Samsung, Sony, Sharp, LG, or Panasonic.

As a developer watching vendors rush into the smart TV goldfield, attempting to stake a claim, the landscape looks much too fragmented to attempt to make heads or tails of it until a significant uptick in usage or a particular brand appears.

Whereas I would usually welcome a Cambrian-like explosion in operating system choice, TVs would appear to be too enduring a form factor for an OS tussle to happen, but this is exactly where we are now.

What happens when a smart TV is bricked after a failed update when the warranty has expired? How do you explain a hard factory reset to your parents? And does the choice of operating system actually make any difference to consumers?

Settle in, the smart TV gold rush is well and truly on, and many questions are going to be answered one way or another in the coming years.

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