Making and selling TVs is a rough business. Profit margins are razor thin. True innovations come slowly and at great expense, and the benefits are frequently hard to explain. Samsung knows this better than most, having led the TV market in all nearly all the metrics that matter for over ten years.
This week in Las Vegas, Samsung unveiled its latest line-up of TVs to the rabble of tech journalists attending the CES tradeshow. The crowd was suitably impressed, amazed, and yes, daunted, as we once again had to pierce the veil of buzzwords that TVs suffocate under.
The latest term to enter the lexicon: QLED, a rebranding of quantum dot technology, which was all the rage last year. The new version has slightly different benefits that are, of course, hard to explain.
But as HS Kim, President of Visual Display Business at Samsung, stood before the gleaming new TVs— the curved-panel Q8 and flat-panel Q9—espousing their greatness, I was struck by a certain notion. Through some alchemy of color and resolution, the very-flat-and-in-no-way-3D picture on the screen somehow looked 3D. More real.
I was won over, convinced that there's a benefit here, but equally convinced that it's just too esoteric to be the next "big thing." Was I wrong? I sat down with Kim to discuss why the TV industry feels like it’s stuck in a rut and what Samsung intends to do about it.
The halo effect only goes so far
Not so long ago, TVs were huge, boxy monstrosities. Then along came LCD screens, which allowed TVs to drastically reshape themselves into sleek, flat panels. They were easier to transport. They could go in more places in the home. Valuable living room space was reclaimed as TVs were drawn back towards the wall, retreating into the background.
It was an “aha moment,” a turning point that we could look back on and see a fundamental change. Flat panel TVs solved a problem. But once that barrier was overcome, the focus went inward and esoteric, chasing an idealized "perfect" picture quality. In the absence of any real problems, we now have a glut of solutions.
“Picture quality is no longer enough to grow the market,” says Kim.
It’s certainly not for lack of trying, though. Expect to see the QLED branding everywhere over the next year, just as we saw the SUHD brand (now officially retired) plastered all over websites and electronics stores last year. Samsung has shown a willingness to go big on branding to maintain its number one spot.
What does QLED mean, exactly? To AV nerds, it will be the latest volley in an endless war of specs. To the average buyer, it will equate in some foggy way to the idea of a "really good picture."
And while QLED was a term that existed prior to this week, you can forget whatever QLED used to mean, before Samsung claimed the term for its own purposes. “Samsung has a history of pushing branding terms and shaping them what they want them to mean,” says Paul Gagnon, Director of TV Sets Research at IHS.
To clarify: QLED is an advancement in quantum dot technology that uses backlighting to charge metal alloy nanoparticles for superior color reproduction compared to existing quantum dot displays. Down the road, they could omit the backlighting to create self-emitting quantum dots, thus improving black levels and striking a blow against the competing OLED technology. But that will takes years and millions of dollars in research.
Excited yet? Of course not. Chances are that went in one ear and out the other. You may trouble yourself to learn a few terms if you’re in the market for a new TV, but otherwise it’s a babbling brook.
The hidden value of these super high-end TVs is the halo effect it has on the rest of the line-up. Chances are you won’t buy a QLED TV this year, but you’ll buy from the brand that makes QLED TV. You’ve inferred that QLED is good, ergo all Samsung TVs are good. The halo effect is a powerfully ally to the savvy marketer, and you can bet Samsung has some of those in their stables.
A TV in every room in the house
Lifestyles are changing. We’re simultaneously more comfortable with technology, but less patient with tech that doesn’t immediately reveal its benefits and integrate into our lives. To drive a successful TV business into the next decade, those conditions must be reckoned with.
Samsung appears to have a two-pronged game plan: TV ubiquity and TV connectivity.
In the U.S., Kim points out, middle class or higher households would have about seven rooms. Those same households currently own an average or three TVs.
Kim held up his fingers. “We have four more opportunities,” he said. “Our ultimate goal is a screen everywhere.”
For generations, a TV in every room has practically been shorthand for the portrayal of cartoonish opulence. But times change. After all, you don’t think twice about bringing your smartphone into the bathroom, do you?
New materials and new designs clearly point towards a future where TVs can be seamlessly integrated into the décor, whether its super thin panels, traditional picture frames that surround the screen, or flexible screens that can hang by magnets.
Big, beautiful, showy TVs for the living room, and smaller or cheaper or otherwise better suited TVs for the bedroom, kitchen, garage, patio, ad infinitum.
And once in place, the stage is set for the second part of the plan: total integration into the smart home ecosystem.
Connected TVs aren't nearly as connected as they could be
The wave of smart home continues to gather momentum with no end in sight. Virtually every device announced at CES had some smart home angle to it.
As a big, expensive piece of technology, you’d expect TVs to have some prominence in the smart home. But so far their integration has been pretty minimal. Most TV brands offer some modest voice command functionality, and many have gotten good at integrating with smartphones to pass content back and forth.
Samsung itself introduced the ability to make its connected TVs a hub for the Samsung-owned SmartThings platform, but the idea never really took off.
TVs have yet to assume the mantle of “mission control” for IoT. It’s a little baffling to consider that TVs have been sidelined in this regard while the Amazon Echo—a device that can only respond with audio—has taken the world by storm.
“Let’s say that you ask [a connected device] to find the best French restaurant in Las Vegas,” says Kim. “If that feedback comes back to you in audio or voice, do you think that would be easy to digest and understand?”
No, clearly the visual feedback from a TV would be preferable for many scenarios. But to do that Samsung would have to break from its current path and embrace smart home platforms that have gained the most headway, platforms not directly controlled by Samsung.
Surprisingly, Kim seemed open to the idea. “I think collaborating with Google, Alexa, or Comcast would not be an issue,” he stated.
Considering that every 2017 Samsung TV will be internet-connected, and that by 2020 every single Samsung product will be connected, there’s an enormous opportunity to leverage the power of such partnerships.
Smartphones have not changed TV viewing habits
Despite an ever-fracturing landscape of entertainment options across a multitude of devices, Americans still love their TV time. In market surveys, Samsung found that the number of hours people spent watching TV hasn’t dropped.
“Of course especially with the younger generation, the content viewed on their smartphone has increased,” stated Kim. “But perhaps because of binge-watching, the number of hours spent consuming content on the big screen has not decreased.
All of this—the steady viewing habits, the increasing number of TVs in the home, and the increased connectivity of those TVs—show strong prospects for Samsung’s continued dominance in the TV business.
While challengers like LG give Samsung a run for their money on picture quality, and brands like Vizio chip away at their sales volume with inexpensive alternatives, the future is Samsung’s to win or lose.