Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Smart TV FAIL. Let's go back to the Idiot Box.

Having observed the whole 'connected tv' phenomenon first hand since my early days at YouTube, contributing to XBMC since its inception and being really interested in this space personally, I am very upset with the direction where Smart TV is going.

I think that the future should not include 'Apps on TV', 'Browser on TV', and its also not 'Read Facebook or Check Email on the TV'.  They are terrible to use and there are some fundamental reasons why they will never be good:
  • TV is a consumption device for media (photos, videos and music).
  • An average TV is a few feet away from the user. This makes it difficult to read any text that is not blown up to the size of subtitles.
  • It is also a shared device, so anything that is relatively personal (like email) is not practical to use on the TV.
  • The interface on TV is simple: Big menu items and Big boxes. Anything beyond this gets cluttered up because of its size restrictions.
  • It is really awesome at what it does: Play media. It sucks at almost everything else.
Now, if you look at the trends that are happening (for TV space):
  • Facebook / Email  / Twitter / Browser on TV
  • Big fancy keyboards connected to TV
  • Reading news on TV
  • Searching for content on TV
  • Different apps on TV
All these are enabled by connecting the TV to the internet. TVs have become more smarter in the last 5  years than they have ever been, and everyone is itching to get on board with these new capabilities.

However, I think that loading TV with all these features is going to fail.

An ideal TV experience should be:
  • Use TV as a dumb device to play content from any source - brodcast, internet or somewhere in between.
  • Give it a minimal interface so its easy to play this content, like play / pause / next.
  • Use an additional device (Laptop, Phone, Tablet, etc) to control the programming.
This way, next time you want to watch Netflix or listen to Pandora, you can go Netflix.com (or open its app on your smartphone) and select 'Play on TV'. No dealing with confusing interfaces, no app crashes on the TV.

However, this is not happening due to a variety of reasons:
  • There are no 'standards' around this. I cannot build a TV that supports standard X, which will enable it to play content from different sources directly without writing native apps.
  • A TV without interface doesn't look 'sexy'. You can't show-off that it has 'no interface'. Except if you are apple :).
  • The TV will need a companion device which actually has the interface. It can be a tablet, laptop, phone or even the source / website itself.
Imagine if we had to have apps for every channel that we have subscribed to on your Cable or Dish network, all with a different UI. This is where Smart TV is going right now.

Apple is the only company that has done at-least *something* on these lines, via AirTunes and now AirPlay that is directly integrated in iOS. Its still a bit clunky to use, but definitely a step in the right direction.

In the end, the primary role of a TV is to play content, and trying to make them 'Smart' is like putting lipstick on a pig.

Hopefully we will see a TV that has no interface, can be fully controlled via my tablet, and can play just about anything from everywhere.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Smarter Email

I love Email.

It just works. It works because it is flexible, open, and anyone can use it. It works very well in heterogeneous environments as the email standard is well documented, accepted and implemented.

I have looked at a ton of 'solutions' that try to replace emails, but nothing really works as seamlessly as good-old email.

The goal of email is to enable communication and think that it can be improved. It will be stupid to completely replace this amazing means of communication, when it fundamentally works well. What needs to be done is to make it 'smarter'.

What's broken is not the ability of emails to enable communication, but that the forms of communication have now become more complicated whereas email is still at its original design built for person-to-person messaging. Because email worked for everything, everything piled onto it making it complicated.

What needs to happen is that a standard should be created on top of email, that can handle 'special' use cases which can then be implemented by clients in a cross-platform way.

A few examples of this are:
  • Messages from discussion groups can be similar to RSS feeds. They are usually read-only and rarely need to be responded to.
  • Special handlers to 'automatic' messages, like calendar invites, flight alerts, shipping confirmation, etc. They don't need to be shown like a 'message', just need to get to my mailbox so that I can access them if I need to.
  • Notification emails should show up as, well, notifications.
  • A good way to handle things like groupons, which, even though come in as email, aren't really messages. 
There is no one company that can 'fix' this, as any change to email needs to be standardized. However, small steps can definitely be taken to create email formats that are 'machine readable' by the client so they can be organized properly.

A first step in this direction is to have a major email provider (eg. gmail) to start supporting 'smart email' formats. This will make the services to send emails compatible with this format, which can then grow and expand to more and more services.

I would love to see some work done here, and see someone solve this problem.  May be its time for someone to start a new email company :)