Video on demand
One area where Australia is far behind the times in video on demand is in the arena of large, subscription-based libraries of popular and high quality TV and feature film content. The recent launch of QuickFlix and its streaming library has gone some small way to compensate, but there’s a long way to go. What we need is a local version of Hulu, Amazon on Demand or Netflix, with a single all-access price, but licencing agreements will no doubt take a long while to sort out.
What’s more likely is that we’ll see further proliferation and expansion of the excellent ABC iView and SBS catch-up video services on existing Web video-enabled TVs — possibly all the way down to the cheapest models (this is something that Sony did very well at the start of 2011). The commercial television networks — that’s Seven, Nine and Ten — have a bit more to do to make their services ready for prime-time (pardon the pun). We did notice that Nine has recently re-branded its site from FixPlay to NineMSN Video, so perhaps there are changes afoot there. The launch of the BBC iPlayer internationally gives us hope that overseas content providers may have some ability to sneak into the Australian market.
The most exciting possibilities for great leaps forward in Web video, though, are with 2012’s rumoured Apple TV and Google TV products.
A possible Apple TV
If there’s one possible TV development in the next year that we’re (cautiously) optimistic for, it’s the suspected launch of the Apple TV set. While the Apple TV set-top box has had a lukewarm reception in Australia, a fully integrated solution a la iMac would be far more compelling. With the revelation that the late Steve Jobs had a role in the ongoing development of a TV product at Apple, it’s looking more and more likely that the massive personal computing company will make a concerted effort to enter consumer’s living rooms worldwide.
As is standard with almost everything that Apple develops and produces these days, we don’t know anything about the specs of any prospective Apple TV. Knowing the company’s design principles and its new-found display partnership with Sharp, we can hypothesise that the Apple TV would be a sleek, minimalist set based on a 2012 update of Sharp's Quattron LED back-lit LCD TV panel. Sharp doesn’t have the same brand recognition that Sony, Samsung and Panasonic do in Australia, but a recent move by Pioneer to revive its TV brand in the US using Sharp TVs shows the high regard the manufacturer is held in overseas and the quality of its panels. Sharp also has its own LCD panel manufacturing plants, plenty of expertise in innovative back-lighting technologies like LED, and (most importantly) they’re not Samsung.
There’s been speculation about the Apple TV relying upon Siri for voice control, but we’re not yet convinced this will be the ‘simplest user interface’ that Jobs spoke of: the service is still in its infancy, isn’t good with accents, and just doesn’t seem suited to the nuances of watching video. There may well be a modified and more appropriate version of Siri in the works, but if Apple is relying on it we would doubt a 2012 launch is on the cards for the Apple TV. Touch is out of the question — who’s going to walk over to their TV just to smudge it with fingerprints? — and traditional remote controls, with their dozens of buttons, don’t fit in with Apple’s simple-is-best philosophy. Perhaps we’ll see a revival of the currently-unloved Apple remote and a great on-screen interface. The existing Apple product line-up gives us some hints as to possible interface options: some amalgam of the styles iOS and OS X Lion with an external controller makes the most logical sense.
Content is an equally complicated factor, especially with Australia’s convoluted media landscape. Apple’s movie and TV-streaming services haven’t been particularly enticing in the past, but we’re hoping the emergence of iCloud over the past year should give some impetus to local Web video. Ideally, we’d love a subscription-based or free-to-view catch-up TV library with a HD option, and a similarly comprehensive movie service. Without these services, and considering the lack of existing high quality local Web options, the new Apple TV would struggle to find purpose in Australia. iTunes Match integration would bring users’ music libraries to the Apple TV, but video is the magic bullet.
In short: don’t hold your breath, but when the Apple TV arrives it will likely be a distinctly different product to the TVs we’ve become used to over the past few years. It’s likely it’ll be basically technically similar, but the interface and content options afforded by Apple’s design philosophy and possible partnerships will make it a unique device, and probably not one directly competing with Samsung, Sony, Panasonic and the other big TV market players in Australia.
Google TV hasn’t taken off in Australia yet, and like glasses-free 3D we think any steps to adopt it in 2012 will be very cautious ones. Logitech’s spearheading of the Google TV cause in the US with its Revue set-top box was a resounding failure, with the US$299 device canned last month after a last-dash effort at US$99. There’s also a little hope for a Samsung television with integrated Google TV at CES 2012, although LG may debut. It’s possible that there will be a move to remove the necessity of Google TV’s QWERTY keypad from the equation and bring a more user-friendly and attractive control scheme into play.
Like the mysterious Apple TV, content is a huge factor in the release of any ‘smart TV’ service by Google in Australia. Google is best able to leverage Web video giant YouTube, which has recently been reinvigorated with the addition of new channel options and other features, but there is a quality bottleneck: both the quality of the video and the quality of the content that’s actually available online. We’d need to see some strong partnerships with TV and movie portals for Google TV to be of significant value to the average Australian household. Google is optimistic, but that’s not surprising.
2012: the year of Web video?
There are plenty of ways in which television technology can and will change and mature over the course of 2012. Some aspects are inevitable — lower prices, larger sizes — and some are dubious enough as to be unlikely — Google TV, 4K and glasses-free 3D, for example.
What stands out most though: it’s obvious that the availability of Web video on demand and streaming video will be a huge sticking point in the next year, especially in the content-sparse Australian marketplace. Any TV manufacturer or content partner that distinguishes itself from the competition will be in a prime position to score hundreds of thousands of Australian eyeballs. 2012 looks like it has the potential to be an exciting year to buy a new TV.