LG offers developers a chance to work with its webOS TV to prove that it's more than just another boob tube
Few technologies are more associated with stupidity than the television set. Children are told that watching too much television will rot their brains; adults often call them "boob tubes" to show their disdain for the device; and many people gripe about the mind-numbing programs that this pariah-slash-messiah of the living room allows others to watch. So why would anyone attempt to build a "smart" version of what is often considered technology's dumbest device?
LG hopes to find out with its webOS television set (powered by the infamous Palm operating system that seemed poised to dominate the smartphone market before it faded into obscurity) and the new tools it released today to encourage developers to make applications for the device. The idea is to use a well-regarded operating system, that many believe never received the attention it deserved, to prove that television sets don't need other devices to be "smart."
That isn't likely to happen any time soon. Other boxes, whether they're dedicated to bringing cable television into your home, streaming services like Netflix, or playing physical media like Blu-ray movies or video games, aren't going to disappear until television companies can copy all of their features without compromise. Unless LG plans to build a full video game console with a worthwhile selection of games directly into its television set, that seems unlikely at best.
Consider all of the things the Xbox One does for its users, as I wrote when it was first revealed:
Maybe it’s best to think of the Xbox as the App Store for entertainment and, well, actual software. Microsoft has the opportunity to connect many disparate services — Amazon Prime Instant Video, Netflix, Hulu Plus, its own Xbox Video service, and more — and collect them all under one dominant platform, much in the same way that Apple corralled software into its own App Store or videos, music, and books into the iTunes store. The Xbox One is the only device to corral all of those services, videogames, the Web, Skype, and your existing cable service into one place. And, until the Apple TV, Roku set-top boxes, or similar products are able to play blockbuster videogames, the Xbox One will remain the king of the living room.LG can't match those features with its webOS television set. It can come close -- essentially any device can support Netflix and other video services -- and webOS developers might even release applications that have no counterparts on other platforms. But that's not going to be enough to convince people that they should purchase a new television set instead of spending between $50 and $400 on a set-top box or console, assuming they don't own them already. People might hate extra boxes, but their hatred for paying more for less burns even brighter.
The company is making a valiant effort to prove me wrong. It's not every day that a company purchases a near-defunct smartphone operating system, ports it to television sets, and then gives developers a chance to write their own software for the device. This already makes the webOS television set more appealing than other smart televisions, as CNET's David Katzmaier wrote after spending some time with the device in January at LG's Silicon Valley Lab, even though he had his own reservations about the product's chances of appealing to consumers:
After playing with WebOS and learning its advantages and weaknesses, I'm fairly certain it's "just another evolution" in the genre, not a game-changer that'll replace all those external boxes.
On the other hand from what I've seen WebOS is the frontrunner for best Smart TV system of 2014. When I get the chance to compare it head to head against competitors from Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, Vizio and others in my lab, I'll know for sure. So people who believe that smart television sets are good enough to replace their set-top boxes and game consoles will probably be happy with the webOS television set. LG's willingness to open the platform to other developers might make them even happier, as encouraging people to experiment with what's possible on something besides a smartphone or tablet could lead to some interesting applications. But for everyone who wants to be able to do everything without compromise and doesn't wish to buy a new television set, LG has just made another boob tube.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]