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Smart TVs: a new opportunity for the Web

Recently, our family bought themselves a Samsung Smart TV. As they are not known for being technology-literate, I can’t imagine them making use of its smartness, but it was interesting to use one for the first time. I was surprised to see that all the apps were built using the Web.

It made me think: TV apps are just starting off with the general public; all of the Smart TV manufacturers – mainly Samsung, Panasonic, LG and Sony – have created their own Smart TV OSs. Also, we have the Big Three devices and services companies – Apple, Google and Microsoft – creating their own Smart TV set-top boxes with Apple TV, Google TV and the Xbox One.

But what differentiates the TV manufacturers from the Big Three is that, while the Big Three’s TV apps run on their own proprietary app platforms, the TV manufacturers have all done something unexpected. Rather than creating their own SDKs, they allow apps to be created using the Web.

The Web app platforms on each Smart TV OS aren’t completely interoperable, but it’s still encouraging and a testimony to the capability of the Open Web Platform.

The BBC were one of the first to face this problem. While all Smart TVs (or “Connected TVs” as the BBC calls them) run apps using common browser engines like WebKit or Presto, there are some big differences in how to use features like storage and video playback. They created a library called the TV Application Layer to abstract all of this. Better yet, they’ve open sourced it and put it on GitHub!

This is a great opportunity for the Web. While pure Web apps have been slow to take off on PCs and smartphones, TV manufacturers seem to have a lot more support and appreciation for the interoperability of the Web platform. We need to capitalise on this and encourage greater interoperability between TV apps running on the Web – top an extent that the BBC’s TAL is no longer needed. Web developers should be able to create a TV app and expect it to run on all Smart TVs perfectly.

This will probably require a lot of help from the W3C. They need to be working with TV manufacturers – finding out what they need changing in the Web platform to make TV apps interoperable.

However, it looks like things are already going in that direction. LG surprised us all today at CES 2014 when they announced they are bringing back WebOS from the dead to be used for their smart TVs in the future. More importantly, the Web platform supporting charity Mozilla announced a partnership with Panasonic to use Firefox OS in some of their future Smart TVs.Will the future of the Web on TVs be as bright as their backlighting? Only time will tell, but it looks positive!