Who is smart about TV - Samsung, Sony or Google?

 

Tour of Google TV at Googleplex, California

When it comes to televisions, the Consumer Electronics Show is rather predictable. Each year the screens get bigger and slimmer and the pictures get sharper. But this year there's something else - just about every new set is a smart TV, designed to be connected to the internet.

Samsung, Sony, LG and Panasonic have all unveiled sets which try to integrate the television experience with the boundless content of the web. Not new, I hear you say - that has been tried for years, all the way back to WebTV in the 1990s. What's different this year is the alliance between the hardware makers and a software giant, Google, with both determined to make connected TV a mainstream idea.

But who is going to be the dominant force in smart TV - the Asian hardware manufacturers, or the search firm which has already made its mark on the smartphone industry?

Last night, I sat through spectacular Las Vegas press conferences with Samsung and Sony, and last week I visited Google in Mountain View to talk about their plans in television. Each of these players has a trump card.

For Samsung it is its dominance of the television market. In a steamy Las Vegas ballroom, where it was standing room only, its executives reeled off a series of statistics and bold claims in front of a giant screen. Samsung had been the world's leading television manufacturer for the last six years, selling 57 million sets in the last year. It had invented Smart TV way back in 2008.

iPTV offerings at CES

The company's new sets, we were told, would see, listen and do what you wanted without you having to touch the remote. Many top-end sets will be equipped with a webcam so that you could do video-calls from your sofa and interact with web content.

What's more, there's a promise that the sets will be future-proof, with upgrades available via a slot in the back. "We are delivering the future of TV - it begins today," proclaimed Boo-Keun Yoon, president of Samsung's consumer electronics division.

So how could Sony counter that? The company which used to be the biggest brand in television is struggling, racking up big losses, and apparently unsure how to move forward in a market where the economics are very challenging.

But Sony believes it still has a trump card in its access to high quality content, from games to movies to music, all of which can now be streamed to its televisions, its new tablets or its smartphones.

To emphasise the extent of Sony's media empire, the company president Sir Howard Stringer ushered the movie star Will Smith and the singer Kelly Clarkson onto stage, sprinkling a bit of showbiz glitz on what had been a rather lacklustre presentation.

The message was that on our Sony connected TVs (and Sir Howard told us there were already 100 million of them around the world, a far bigger audience than any cable company could claim) we would enter a wonderland of fabulous content at the press of a button.

So what cards does Google have in its hand? The search giant does not own any content, or make any hardware. But when I talked to Google TV's Mario Queiroz last week he said his firm did have something very valuable - the search algorithms which would help viewers cut through the thickets of channels:

"We can make it very easy for you to sit down and get to something and relevant that you want to watch, much more quickly because we are able to make recommendations based on what you've watched for, based on ratings and other signals."

Google does not see itself as in competition with the hardware manufacturers - after all, its Android software is now powering many of their smart TVs. And, if the market is going to grow as rapidly as is claimed, there will be room for everyone.

But, while the Asian electronics giants keep on scrapping over the ever thinner margins to be made from selling televisions, the Californian firm may be best placed to profit from connected television. After all, it is already making billions from its dominant position in online search advertising - if Google becomes the way we search for what to watch, vast new profits could soon be rolling into Mountain View.

 
Rory Cellan-Jones, Technology correspondent Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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