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Failed mobile operating systems find life after death on the TV

Failed mobile operating systems find life after death on the TV

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To look at the tech industry from afar, you'd think it's an unforgiving, bruising competition where only the consistently successful companies and products survive. That's broadly true, but there's one safety net, one little gift from the smirking tech gods, that keeps giving solace to failed software projects: the TV.

When a mobile operating system fails, it doesn't disappear, it's just converted into a TV operating system. Palm's webOS didn't make it in the mobile realm, but it lives on today through LG's flagship TV series. Samsung's current OS for televisions is Tizen, which is the culmination of a long line of mobile failures, starting with Nokia's Maemo and Intel's Moblin, which merged into MeeGo, only to merge again with Samsung's unsuccessful Bada. And this week at CES, Panasonic announced a new range of Firefox OS-powered UHD TVs. This comes a month after Mozilla killed off the Firefox phone.

Everything is in flux

These are not tales of doom, however. The TV is not where operating systems go to die. On the contrary: webOS has been universally well received, Tizen is thriving and starting to add real value, and Mozilla and Panasonic are extending a partnership that has evidently proven fruitful already. There are updates in the offing, expanded features in development, and a promising future for more than a mere few.

Put in the simplest possible terms, the TV is a software black hole. It attracts everyone and everything — because it's so central to our homes and lives, and because the standard of its typical software has been so low for so long. The reason why projects like Tizen and Firefox OS (and hey, why not throw in the mobile Ubuntu, while we're at it) fail on mobile devices is that established mobile software is too mature. Android and iOS have had years to polish off their rough edges, and they've copied others and each other to the point of near-perfect feature parity and completeness. Oh, and they have a couple of trillion apps each. You can't compete with that.

Nothing is settled

Apps and interfaces on the TV are a whole different ballgame. Yes, Apple and Google are very much present in this space too, but their implementations of iOS (now known as tvOS) and Android are still in their developmental stages. Android itself has been forked into a separate version by Amazon for its Fire TV devices. You'd think by now we'd have figured out a canonical way for organizing TV listings and available streaming sources into a coherent, easy-to-use interface, but nobody has quite nailed it. And while TV applications are plentiful and games are increasing in number and quality, no platform has yet secured a significant advantage over all the others. Microsoft's Xbox One and Sony's PlayStation 4 also complicate matters by supplanting and superseding much of the smart TV functionality.

The TV is the dawdling cousin of the phone. It's getting smarter, it's getting better, but it's doing so at a much slower pace, which leaves room for a wider competitive field. There's a feedback effect from this diversity of competition, which is that it creates a hurdle for any true software standardization and app ecosystem creation across devices and manufacturers. But if we're patient, that time will come too. Apple is among the companies pushing away from the million-button remote controls toward ones with motion sensors and touch sensitivity. If you think back to the time when phones transitioned from rubber keypads to buttonless touchscreens, that's roughly where we are in the evolution of the smart TV.

The history of TV software still has a number of important chapters left to be written, and the cool thing is that we don't really know who the key protagonists will be. So long as the throne is still up for grabs, we can look forward to more contenders rising up to take on the challenge, whether they come from the mobile, desktop, or web realms.

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