Next week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) should bring out the latest HDTV sets from all the big names including Samsung, Sony, LG, Panasonic, Sharp, Toshiba and more. We expect to see more connected TVs with more iPads and other tablets controlling them. A challenge they will all be facing is how to make their TVs stand out from the pack.

With little differentiation between one high-refresh-rate, LED backlit, big-screen HDTV set and another, TV manufacturers are going to have to differentiate in order to make their TVs more appealing than others. One differentiation we may see is added TV “smarts,” either built into the TV itself or provided in a companion device like a tablet. TVs with more smarts will help but, with rumors of an Apple TV coming in 2012, we wonder if any of the major TV brands will be able to compete with Apple in the battle for the living room.

Unfortunately, throwing pixels on a screen is not enough to sustain a TV manufacturer’s market share. HDTVs, like laptop computers, are becoming something of a commodity; there is little to differentiate one brand from another. Even Sony, which has been able to command a price premium in the past, now has TVs that are priced similarly to Vizio TVs. Of course, there will always be new technology advances like Ultra High Definition (UHDTV), quantum dots, and big-screen AMOLED TVs but these won’t come for some time. Once one vendor gets one of these features, they all will.

Connected TVs And The Home

Connecting TVs to the Internet, which is becoming a standard feature on new TVs (as we found nearly 50 percent of all 37-in.-and-larger TVs introduced this year came with Internet connectivity) is only a piece of the puzzle. Apple, with its Airplay media-sharing technology, and Samsung, with its AllShare, DLNA-based version, have both established an environment where consumers can move photos, videos, music and other media and documents from one of their devices to another.

This sort of connectivity along with apps like remote controllers, games and all kinds of apps consumers currently use on tablets and smartphones could all be part of a vendor’s ecosystem. In addition to integrating the TV in the home-tech ecosystem, it will be the software or “smarts” along with the content offerings that will differentiate TVs and move one of them to the top of the living-room technology stack.

The Next Big HDTV Brands

If TV hardware becomes the commoditized “platform” and software, content, apps and the tech ecosystem become the differentiators, then it’s possible that the consumer software giants of today have a chance at becoming players in the TV industry. We’ve already heard rumors of a Microsoft TV that incorporates Xbox features and Kinect gesture UI. Similar rumors are circulating about an Apple iTV coming in 2012. Google had a rough start with Google TV but we don’t think they will give up control of the living room that readily.

In preparation for a rumored “iTV,” Apple would most likely put together a lot of content deals so they can offer a rich selection of programming through an Apple iTV store similar to the launch of the iPod and iTunes music store. They already sell programming to run on the Apple TV set-top box but a branded TV will require bumping that up a notch. Apple will also show the industry how to make a TV friendlier with new UI features for the 10-foot interface or they might use the iPad as a controller or to add “smarts.”

As we move into the year of the tech ecosystem, Apple is in a perfect position to integrate a TV into its own tech ecosystem, where data can move between devices using Airplay. An Apple TV would be one of many Apple devices that can take advantage of smart agents like Siri, ready and able to help you with all your media and entertainment needs.

What About Sony?

Will we see Apple swoop in and take over the TV market like they have with smartphones and tablets? If Samsung’s (and others’) “smart” TV patents don’t get in Apple’s way and Apple does, in fact, jump into the TV business, will Samsung, LG, Sony and the rest be able to follow Apple’s lead?

Believe it or not, Microsoft might have a chance with Xbox and a Kinect-based-gesture, 10-foot user interface. Samsung is trying the hardest with new devices and features, and it may be having the most success but Sony is probably in the best position. They could leverage Sony Pictures for content; Sony PlayStation for gaming; Blu-ray and entertainment; Sony cameras for image sharing; and their TVs and audio gear. Having struggled in the past year to recapture the strength of the Sony brand, it remains to be seen whether or not they can muster the force to take on Apple.

We’ll be watching Sony, Samsung and other TV giants at CES as we wait for Apple, Microsoft, or Google to make their move.

Andrew Eisner, director/Community and Content, Retrevo.com, press@retrevo.com.

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