Flingo, Accedo Broadband, and Others Cram New Tricks into Smart TVs:
Television Wants to Be Your Best Friend Again

Xconomy New York — 

Between the digital content being squeezed into televisions and the perpetual stream of new hardware, sitting down to watch a show is far from simple these days. Companies such as Flingo in San Francisco and Stockholm-based Accedo Broadband, which got a foothold in Brooklyn last fall, develop apps and platforms designed to enhance TV viewing. More and more action is happening in TV land thanks to a glut of sometimes confusing software, more content getting pushed to mobile devices alongside televisions, and the introduction of funky new controls to increase audience interactivity.

New technology is nice but are televisions trying too hard to behave like other types of gadgets?

Xconomy caught up with Flingo’s CEO and co-founder Ashwin Navin at last week’s International CES where he chatted about his company’s latest technology changes and what he expects to see this year on the television frontier. Flingo developed SyncApps, which pulls up content on televisions and mobile devices that is relevant to shows and movies being watched. The company’s technology also lets viewers engage in conversations, on social networks, about what they are watching.

Flingo's Ashwin Navin says its time to get serious about business models for interactive television.

Navin says though the market for interactive television is thriving, some players may run out of steam in 2013. “This year the story’s going to be about how the pure second-screen companies are going to fold,” he says. Navin did not name names but pointed the finger at businesses that do not marry interactive content on tablets and smartphones, the proverbial second screens, directly to televisions. “These two have to work in concert with each other,” he says.

Another trend that gives him pause is the push to make televisions function more like computers with, he says, too much happening for their own good. Navin says a streamlined interface on television can be the bridge that connects viewers to additional functions controlled through a second screen-device such as a tablet or smartphone. “If you want to personalize your tweets [about a show] and get recommendations—bring it out to the second screen,” he says.

Navin cautions that some technology that gets stuffed into TVs runs the risk of being overlooked by viewers. “It’s no secret that the smart TV hasn’t really inspired the user the way the smartphone has,” he says. “A lot of people spent money on smart TVs the last couple of years but they aren’t really using the smart features.”

Flingo tries to avoid such underuse by keeping things simple. At CES, Navin demoed his company’s new Samba platform, which recommends related videos from the Web and shows similar to what the viewer watches on television. Designed for use with second-screen devices, Samba lets users check in with social media, take polls based on the shows being watched, and look up information on the cast and crew.

Even as he touted his company’s technology, Navin said that innovators in the television market need to remain grounded. “2013 is the year we all have to get real from a business model perspective,” he says. Over the years, various content providers, television makers, and app developers have tried to foist e-commerce ideas onto television, such as selling apparel that actors wear during shows, but Navin does not see that catching on. “Advertising is what keeps [the industry] going,” he says.

Looking to cut down some of the growing confusion happening inside televisions, Accedo Broadband talked up at CES its new TV Everywhere software, which media
companies can use to bring multi-screen services to tablets, game consoles, and other devices. “We identified a major problem in the market,” says David Adams, vice president of corporate development with Accedo, “which is the fragmentation of the platforms for connected TV applications.”

His company previously developed apps such as HBO GO, which streams shows, movies, and other programs from the cable network to its subscribers’ mobile devices. Accedo also built the NBA Game Time app that lets users keep up with coverage of the league’s games.

Adams says in addition to TV Everywhere, Accedo developed an advertising mediation platform—AdMediate—that runs in the cloud and lets content publishers choose the ad networks their brands’ video-on-demand apps work with. According to Adams, ad networks tend to have specific markets they reach leaving it up to app providers to sort out how to cover a broad audience. “We have customers that are in 200 markets but [each of] the ad networks they’re in are only in 40 of those,” he says. The service is aimed at smaller brands that may have online ads but limited broadcast television presence.

Accedo Broadband entered the New York scene through last September’s acquisition of CloverLeaf Digital in Brooklyn. Though others say adoption of some enhanced television services is slow, Adams believes the popularity of such technology is growing.

“When Xbox says usage of applications for video streaming surpassed gaming on the game platform in the first year of release, it shows how strong demand is for over-the-top services,” he says. Adams says consumers are savvy in using the additional features being offered to viewers, though television makers may need to rethink how the technology is presented. Viewers might look at the first page of apps available for television and then stop, missing out on features if the system is too complicated. “They still haven’t learned how to promote other services,” he says. “Their platforms are so convoluted that users would rather use Xbox and Roku.”

Adams says this new era of television is still in its formative stages. The release of the HBO GO app spurred discussion about television carriage agreements and who will be in control of customers moving forward. “That’s a big question that’s going to take 10 years to solve,” he says. In the meantime broadcasters such as Univision and Discovery Channel have sought apps that can be monetized similar to broadcast TV.

The industry continues to evolve with examples such as Comcast’s Xfinity television service being offered to its customers through connected devices almost anywhere. Adams also expects some retailers to offer video-on-demand, cloud sharing, and live TV service that will compete in the market. “There’s a big battle going on with billions of dollars at stake,” he says. “We’re doing little incremental things right now that are revolutionary.”

Samsung introduces its S-Recommendation service.

Television makers seem to be still figuring out how best to give consumers what they really want. Companies such as LG Electronics, which has its U.S. headquarters in Englewood Cliffs, NJ, and Samsung, whose domestic headquarters is based in Ridgefield Park, NJ, regularly trot out very pricey sexy new televisions. A few years ago 3-D was the big fad dangled in front of television buyers but attention soon shifted to apps. However, in the zeal to emulate the smartphone buzz, televisions became platforms for some software that consumers do not care about or find too clunky to navigate.

“For several years companies have been striving to make products smarter,” said Skott Ahn, LG Electronics’ president and chief technology officer, at CES. “Connectivity in the home is a very old concept. However the reality is that consumers are not embracing it.” He elaborated by saying smart TVs and other appliances frequently get new features—which may go unused. Ahn cited a need for easy and natural controls that let consumers quickly access additional functions. He said LG is addressing this challenge through simplified interfaces for example to stream content between smart TVs and smartphones.

“TVs are getting smarter but the way we interact with them was not,” Ahn said. Turning away from the trend of layering on steps to access more, LG is simplifying its voice and gesture controls for televisions. “With this year’s new [LG] Magic Remote, you’ll be able to switch channels by writing numbers in the air,” Ahn said.

Samsung rolled out its own new television features at CES, including a Siri-like concierge style service. On future models of Samsung TVs, S-Recommendation with voice interaction will let users ask their televisions to find shows based on their prior viewing choices. “TV that understands what you like and recommends relevant new content,” Tim Baxter, president of Samsung Electronics America, called it. “We’ve seen an explosion in content and a real shift in how consumers experience it.”

Baxter said Samsung is also simplifying the ways users of its televisions search for and access content related to shows on mobile devices to keep up with demand. “One screen isn’t enough anymore,” he said. “Consumers want their devices connected and want their content to move freely between them.”