2014 in TV Technology News

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In the midst of the holidays and with news being scarce, this week we’ll have a look back at the highlights of the year. It was definitely an interesting year, with various new TV platforms appearing (Android TV, Amazon Fire TV and LG webOS) and others growing fast (Roku, Xbox, PlayStation, Chromecast). Let’s look at each briefly.

Roku had a very strong year, with more than 10 million devices sold since its inception. Being one of the oldest players in the market, it has built up an impressive catalog of 2000 apps, which none of its direct competitors can match. Roku’s strategy for further expansion of its marketshare has been diversification of form factors, both small with its Roku Streaming Stick and large with Roku TV. With $25 million of extra funding, perhaps 2015 will bring an IPO for the company? Even with such a good year though, Roku can’t afford to sit still if it is to remain dominant in 2015.

Amazon entered the market strong with its high performance Android-based Amazon Fire TV. Featuring excellent voice search capabilities, it lacked quite a few crucial apps at launch, but improved throughout the year. In order to also compete in the streaming stick market segment, Amazon followed up by introducing the Amazon Fire TV Stick. It is difficult to judge how successful Amazon’s has been, because it does not share any sales numbers, but the added competition will definitely keep the other contenders on their toes.

Microsoft’s 2014 was all about recovering from its problematic Xbox One launch last year and catching up with Sony’s PlayStation 4. Drastic measures were needed and Microsoft demonstrated it had the guts to take them by making Kinect optional, removing the Xbox Live Gold subscription requirements for media apps and dropping the price of the Xbox One to match the PlayStation 4. Although primarily a gaming device, Microsoft has given plenty of attention to media apps, even going as far as selling a dedicated Media Remote and Digital TV Tuner. With an international rollout including China and an aggressive feature update strategy, Microsoft appears to have recovered from its bad start. Next year, we’ll see if Microsoft can keep the momentum and pull ahead of Sony.

While Sony’s PlayStation 4 enjoyed a very successful year, the rest of the company has been struggling. While third party apps are present on the PlayStation 4 just like the Xbox One, Sony’s focus has been on its own services, such as cloud gaming service PlayStation Now and cloud TV service PlayStation Vue. The international launch of its PlayStation TV set-top box was generally received with bad reviews. Next year we’ll see if Sony’s bet on cloud services for PlayStation will pay off and perhaps counterbalance the dismal results of its other divisions.

With the struggle between Microsoft and Sony dominating the game console market, one would almost forget that Nintendo also has a horse in the race. Not entirely unsurprising, considering the Wii U has not been very successful compared to its bigger brothers, even though it had a one year head start. Nintendo has a lot of work to do next year if it is to remain as relevant as it has been in the past.

In the Smart TV market LG took the biggest gamble this year by completely overhauling its lineup with the introduction of LG webOS. selling 5 million units in 8 months. Judging by LG’s latest press release, it will show some small improvements at CES early next year, but mainly continue on its current course. Perhaps Samsung was inspired by LG’s major overhaul, because it has decided on a complete rework of its own, going all in on Tizen in 2015.

Unavoidably this year had its own TV buzzwords, with TV manufacturers hoping to draw the attention of consumers with curved and even bendable TV sets and various sizes, ranging up to 105 inch and even larger. 4K TVs started becoming affordable and slowly 4K content is being made available, but internet speeds remain a bottleneck.

Perhaps the biggest announcement this year was Google’s introduction of Android TV at Google I/O, its yearly developer conference. After the previous Google TV fiasco, Google is taking Android TV more seriously and adopting TV as an integral part of the Android operating system and including Chromecast support to sweeten the deal. Although currently only available in Google’s Nexus Player, next year it will enter the market in force in the 2015 TV lineups of Sony, Philips and Sharp, which will undoubtedly be presented at CES in January.

Apple, Google’s big opponent in the mobile market, stayed very quiet this year about Apple TV. Although it has sold over 20 million of the little boxes, it limited itself to a few app launches and updates and a graphical UI overhaul. Will we see more in 2015 than 2014? It would in many ways make sense for Apple to go full force on Apple TV, but predicting Apple’s moves is notoriously hard.

The biggest change in the landscape of TV platforms last year, was probably the growth of Chromecast. Originally introduced in 2013 and cheaply priced, the mobile-first streaming stick grew up this year with some serious software updates. Although google is not very focal on sales numbers, only stating it has sold millions, support for the device in mobile apps grew fast this year and it saw a significant international rollout. Currently Google is working on a second version of the Chromecast hardware for release sometime next year.

Google isn’t the only player in the mobile-to-TV segment. Apple has had a strong position for a long time with AirPlay on its Apple TV set-top boxes, but this year others joined the fray as well. On Kickstarter we saw Matchstick – an open source Chromecast clone – being funded and Microsoft launched two Miracast-based screen mirroring devices, one for Surface tablets and one for Lumia smartphones. Roku also joined by adding mirroring to its platform.

In order to make all this mobile-to-TV activity manageable for mobile developers, LG released the Connect SDK intended to unify the various technologies that are available in one easily implemented software library. One of the most interesting dynamics next year will be the evolution of both the TV-first and the mobile-to-TV paradigms. Both have valid use cases and how they will balance out remains yet to be seen.

With all these TV platforms fighting for market share, it’s easy to forget that they are all only as strong as the content that is available through them. Roku has traditionally been very strong in this area, with its immense lineup of high profile apps, but others are growing as well.

In the midst of these developments, the content business is slowly but surely changing. The middle of this year was dominated by the Aereo Supreme Court case, which ended badly for Aereo. While that might keep up the appearance that nothing is changing, the opposite is the case. Next year we’ll see an explosion of streaming-only services, with content becoming available separate from traditional TV subscription for the first time, with HBO being the most visible example.

2015 is sure to be another interesting year in TV technology, with plenty of news to be reported upon. Once the torrent of news from CES has subsided mid January, I will probably have a go at some predictions for the upcoming year. For now, enjoy the holidays and see you next year!

Interested in reading more TV technology news? Keep an eye out for my weekly posts at technology.siekerman.nl (RSS) or follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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