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Assessing the Smart TV Opportunity

There has been increasing chatter about a new TV being developed by Apple.

My opinion on the subject was summarized in the post called Tele Vision. I contend that a TV cannot be smart until the content it delivers becomes smart. The logical conclusion is that the value chain needs re-integration so that the component which is not good enough (the content) can be improved along the dimensions that users value. And it cannot be improved unless the direction it needs to go into is aligned with the direction of the disruptive innovator. I won’t repeat the theory here, but it suffices to say that whatever will change television will do so by re-defining the core product not just the tools we use to consume it.

But today I wanted to address another question: how do we value the opportunity? In a back-of-the-envelope manner, can we tell if this business is big enough to try to fix.

The answer depends a lot on the business model of the disruptive entrant. The entry could depend on software or advertising or hardware or distribution, and each would have a different valuation.

But for the sake of calibration, I want to start with a proxy. The basic question of how many “terminals” exist to the value networks. How many units of TVs are sold and how many could a new entrant convert to a new paradigm?

I prepared the following chart showing the world-wide TV market with a highlighted subset of so-called “smart TVs” (source TRi). The market is shown from 2010 actuals through 2014 estimates. To make it more interesting I also added similar data for two other markets. Mobile phones and PCs with their own sub-categories of smartphones and tablets as equivalent “high growth” opportunities.

When considering the opportunity, the Smart TV volumes are small relative to either tablets or smartphones. 2011 shipments are expected to be around 25 million Smart TVs, vs. 454 million smartphones and 51 million tablets. Looking forward, it seems that even by 2014,  smart TVs will be smaller volumes relative to either (projected) smartphones or tablets.

A reason for this is that the TV market is not that big. It barely reaches 280 million units in 2014. Having reached saturation, the rate of growth is never assumed to be greater than 5%. The growth in the Smart TV business is assumed to be much higher however, being at least 100% in 2012, though off a low base.

But the concept of what “smart” means in this forecast is troubling. Christina Bonnington at Wired highlights many of the failings of Smart TV.

“In most cases consumers are buying a television with Internet connectivity as insurance. In other words, they are buying them just in case they need it in the future,” says Van Baker, a vice-president at the research firm Gartner. “Less than half of Internet connected televisions actually get connected to the Internet so clearly consumers don’t yet see this capability as a must have feature.”

There is vast under-consumption even if the devices are being purchased. This looks eerily familiar to the smartphone market before they became usable by the vast majority through the transformative touch input method.

So this market seems to be ripe for some serious re-definition. It may not be large today because there is nothing worth buying. Absent any innovation the forecasts can only foresee more of the same. If there is a breakthrough which “cracks” this puzzle then we might indeed witness unforeseen opportunity.