At this year's Consumer Electronics Show, some TV makers are getting big props for a TV innovation -- simplicity -- that feels out of fashion at a confab that breathlessly idolizes bells and whistles.
Amid TVs that morph from flat to curved at the touch of a button and Ultra HD sets bigger than the standard American household door, TCL and Hisense announced they would integrate Roku streaming right into their televisions -- no box required. A bigger rival, LG, unveiled an operating system for its 2014 TVs, WebOS, that promises improved on-screen navigation by marrying simple on-screen "cards" that launch apps like Netflix with the company's Magic Motion remote -- one of CNET's favorite.
In the biggest revelation, Sony said it would begin to pilot a cloud-based TV service this year that combines live television content with on-demand and DVR, all searchable across those categories and delivered over the Internet. The Japanese computing and entertainment conglomerate provided only scant details of the venture that, until now, had been reportedly on its slate but hadn't been publicly confirmed. But the virtual pay-TV service it is promising has been an aspiration for the biggest names in tech. The complications of delivering it most recently foiled the ambitions of Intel, which came close to launching its similar On Cue service last year only for a new CEO to lose interest in the project because of its risks.
"For years, consumer electronics companies have tried...to transform the living room and the home entertainment experience because it is fundamentally outdated and flawed," said Andrew House, the chief of Sony Computer Entertainment. "In a technology era that is defined by simplicity and improving people's lives by making things more intuitive, personal and social, elegantly combining live TV, video on demand, and DVR content remains the last frontier."
Internet-connected TVs, sometimes called Smart TVs, have been around for years. Though they have been one of the television industry's primary hopes to climb out of a sales rut, TV shipments remain stagnant: In December, DisplaySearch estimated overall TV demand would fall 3 percent in 2013, after a 6 percent decline in 2012. As 3D TVs proved, gee-whiz TV technologies aren't spurring your mother-in-law to open her checkbook and replace all her boob tubes.
But as the sources of what we watch multiply and popular content moves online -- think Netflix's exclusive originals, which were breakout Emmy contenders last year -- connected TV can be the way viewers access everything they want in one place. A simpler Smart TV may turn out to be the easiest way for the mass market to get there, and an Internet-based pay-television service raises the prospect of a service that finally lets viewers easily find what they want to watch, regardless of whether it is live, or rented, or on-demand, or online subscription-based.
"The simplicity of Smart TV is going to be one of the steps to creating something the mass market wants to have and actually choose to use," Tom Morrod, IHS senior director of consumer electronics, said.
But will that matter if it's not the cheapest option?
Smart TVs aren't smartphones
As the mother of all replacement cycles -- the transition to flat-panel televisions -- petered out, TV makers searched for the next technology that would make shoppers outfit their household's with all new TVs. At first, manufacturers replicated the strategy of smartphones in hopes of replicating their success, said Morrod. The hope was that consumers would start upgrading their TVs in the same way they upgrade their mobile devices -- trading up every couple years for more powerful products to take advantage of an ever-growing universe of capabilities.
But it didn't work. TVs are a totally different type of screen and are used in a completely different way. Manufacturers were making them too confusing, with too many widgets; users didn't want to touch the screen when they were used to leaning back, nor wave their hands to get the channel to change.
Netflix, which touts itself as the world's leading Internet television networks, said Smart TV design today is still primarily aimed at delivering live TV channels. In a statement from representative Joris Evers, Netflix said Smart TVs "too often have Internet functionality as an add-on with a clunky user experience." Yet Smart TVs are a fast-growing device category for Netflix viewing, underscoring that Internet connectivity is only growing in importance for TVs.
Sony, as it went public with its cloud TV service ambitions, noted that its PlayStation 3 gaming console is the No. 1 device in the world for watching Netflix in the living room.
Smarter by being simpler
The transition to simpler TVs and TV services may be how that changes.
TV shoppers care less about "specs" than smartphone shoppers do. They're more interested in an adequate flat-screen with better usability. 4K? 3D? 240Hz? No thanks, just give me Netflix and HBO Go, with a unified remote.
This change looks like it could come this year. The Roku TVs, for example, will use a single remote control for everything, one with very few buttons. You change inputs by using the Roku interface -- click on "Blu-ray player" just like you'd click on "Netflix." The same goes for LG's WebOS interface -- its carousel of simple tiles brings up any media device or game console that you connect to the TV, which it automatically recognizes and names in plain English.
Even simpler, try one wire into the set. Items like the Roku TVs are starting to provide a true "cable-ready" TV without the need for any outboard box. If you're a Time Warner subscriber, a Roku TV could connect you to the TWC app, giving you the full cable channel and on-demand slate built in to the TV. Forget a cable threading through your home into your televisions; all the sets need is one wire -- power -- feeding into them and good Wi-Fi.
Best of all, that means no visit from the cable guy. All you need to connect is an e-mail and password.
And with Sony's cloud-based TV service, the cable guy doesn't even exist. The premise that the service would include not only those video apps like HBO Go and Netflix but also the linear, live channels themselves. You wouldn't need to rely on a TWC app to get your favorite channels via the Internet, when a Sony cloud-based service is founded on the idea of delivering them over the Internet in the first place.
Simpler may not be enough
The double-edged sword is that simpler may not be enough to bring televisions into the next chapter, but if it is, the competitive swarm will be fierce.
Lots of other big players -- Google, Apple, Amazon, Intel -- either already have or are working on Smart TVs with new service models to deliver content.
Indeed, no company holds elegantly simple design in higher regard than Apple. An Apple flat-panel TV has been a rumor-mill regular for years. While the likes of LG, Hisense, and TCL may be striking out to take the lead, even if Apple jumps in late, it will enter with a megapower brand and a strong install base of existing iOS and Apple TV users.
As Google showed with Chomecast, a $35 dongle can potentially disrupt the industry by essentially turning your mobile device into your remote and your cable box in one. Chromecast was in such high demand that it was on back order for weeks after launch, and it topped the best-seller list for consumer electronics at Amazon.com's massive store for months.
Ultimately, content is king, and a lot of the best "channels" on any Internet-enabled TV remain locked down with authentication models. Even if you can get rid of your cable box, you can't get rid of your cable subscription if you want ESPN, HBO, or AMC. The Sony service, if it comes to fruition, is likely to change that, but it's not alone. Intel has come the closest to a virtual pay-TV service. Intel's project was stymied by apathy of the company's new CEO, but it is in the process of being sold. Most recently, it's said to be close to a deal with Verizon, which would give the technology a home where content relationships and subscriber size are already thriving in the Verizon Fios arm.
Why TV shoppers buy
Given the data that price is the main consideration when buying a TV, simpler connected TVs and groundbreaking pay-TV services may not be the way to sell TVs. IHS reported in October that price has overtaken screen size as the main factor in a TV buyer's decision. It's an approach that won't lead TV makers to the goldmine. A race to the bottom, where screen sizes are huge and the price tags are not, isn't the way for manufacturers to reverse a trend of slipping shipments.
There's no evidence that consumers are going out and buying TVs simply to buy Smart TVs, or buying another Smart TV to replace a Smart TV, said Morrod, but he added that convincing consumers to buy an extra Smart TV with features that are handy for the kitchen may work instead. Simpler Smart TVs, like those with Roku built in, fit in snugly in that mold, given their lack of add-on boxes.
However, "we're still probably waiting for the 'iPhone' moment for Smart TVs," he said.
Could Sony's cloud-based TV service be that moment? We'll have to wait and see because, for one, it actually needs to bring it to market, and two, the company needs to tell us what the service will look like. Is it a play to sell TVs and other Sony devices, or is it a new business in and of itself?
It's unclear from Sony's detail-light presentation whether its cloud-based TV service goes hand-in-hand with a living room based around a Sony TV or PlayStation console, or if consumers with other-branded televisions could join up. House, the Sony executive, said the service was designed to be watched on whatever you want, but he also touted that the company was uniquely positioned to offer a service thanks to its more than 70 million Internet-enabled Sony devices in US living rooms.
In other words, simplifying connected TVs is a fresh step in the right direction, but it may not be enough to change manufacturers' fortunes. And until we know what Sony's cloud-based TV service is, and whether the company can make good on bringing it to consumers where others have failed, it's little more than an IOU.
Like much of the technology unveiled at CES this year, TV progress still falls short of revolutionary. For now.
CNET's John Falcone, David Katzmaier, and Matthew Moskovciak contributed to this story.