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Why Apple Inc. Can't Save the Smart TV


Sadly, streaming from a tablet or PC hasn't been much of an alternative, either -- or at least not yet.

Another year, another disappointment for anyone expecting a fully integrated Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) TV product. In his 2011 biography, Steve Jobs claimed that he had "cracked" the concept of an integrated TV, and since then we've had plenty of rumors -- but little else. We may as well be waiting for Godot.

(See also: Apple Inc. Still Can't Seem to Crack That 'Code')

There was reason to hope. Consumers have spent the last few years in a purgatory of dongles, set-top boxes, and half-baked "smart" TVs. Manufacturers have watched as "second screens" grabbed everyone's attention, and then grabbed their wallets. The world has gone mobile and content has migrated to the cloud, while televisions still struggle to work with either medium. If any company could solve the Gordian knot, it would be Apple.

That hasn't happened. Instead, the "smart" revolution has been an excuse for everyone to run in different directions. Want an open platform? We have the Smart TV Alliance, Android TV, and the Tizen Association. A streaming device? There's Roku, Chromecast, Apple TV – and that's just the A list. Then we have set-top boxes like the TiVo (NASDAQ:TIVO) Roamio and Samsung's (OTCMKTS:SSNLF) Smart Media Player, Web-streaming game consoles like Sony's (NYSE:SNE) Playstation 4 and Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Xbox One, and televisions preloaded with smart features that, it turns out, few buyers use.

So much for integration, and so much for getting rid of some of these @#$% remotes.

Sadly, streaming from a tablet or PC hasn't been much of an alternative -- at least, not yet. Older methods come with limitations; HDMI requires you to plug in, and DLNA won't handle Web content. On the other hand, newer solutions tend to be proprietary and nonstandard. Airplay works great, but requires an Apple TV. Chromecast pairs with most hardware (including iPads), but will only mirror Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Chrome Web browser.

The best hope may be something called Miracast. It uses Wi-Fi Direct technology, which until recently required an adapter for your television (similar to the Chromecast). LG (KRX:003550) began incorporating Wi-Fi Direct into its TVs last year, and Samsung announced last summer that it was following suit.

This technology has also gone global on the device side. Android adopted Miracast in late 2012, although implementation has been slow due to underperforming hardware and the fragmentation of Google's operating system. Microsoft added its endorsement last month with Windows 8.1, which added Miracast as a native feature; any Windows PC, tablet, or phone running a 4G Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) chip should be able to take advantage of it. Intel deserves the credit. The chipmaker stewarded the adoption of Miracast, instituted a hardware certification regime, and built out some of the early software. (Intel video here.)

It's not a perfect solution. A well-designed, integrated TV would be even simpler -- for a while. Media providers have hitched their wagons to the mobile industry, and they're now riding the two-year upgrade cycle. Hardware and content are evolving quickly, while televisions only get replaced, on average, every seven years. An integrated TV would be the best of all possible worlds for about 12 to 24 months. After that, it would become a museum piece too expensive to replace, and deadweight for whatever operating system had to support it. Google already has problems keeping Android current; just imagine the headaches it will face supporting Android TV. It seems unlikely that even Apple can save the smart television, and in fact, we could probably blame the iPhone for killing it.

Video-game consoles and set-top boxes are no panacea. Many of them carry the same limitation as televisions; their primary function is to play games, record shows, or spin discs – not provide a smart platform – and they don't get replaced very often. It's easier and less expensive to go with a streaming device like Roku, but that means adding yet another appliance to the living room.

If we can't have an integrated TV, we can at least hope for a universal remote. More than half of American adults now own smartphones and/or tablets, and according to research from the NPD Group, almost all of them use these devices while watching the tube. It would seem to be a match made in heaven, and if industry trends continue, we'll soon hear wedding bells.

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