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Manufacturers to do battle in new era of smart TV software

NEW YORK--More choice — and confusion — is coming to the next generation of TVs.

At least three new software systems were announced Monday for Internet-connected television sets, which let viewers watch Internet video and interact with friends online on the big screen. The new smart TV operating systems will compete with software already available from Google and individual TV manufacturers.

The slew of options is in contrast to the smartphone market, where just two operating systems — Apple's iOS and Google's Android — dominate.

But more consumer choice will also mean more difficulties for services such as Hulu and Netflix to write apps. As a result, app selection on any given TV will be limited.

To fully enjoy the range of Internet video on the TV, many consumers will still have to buy a separate device such as Apple TV and Roku for as much as US$100 — and then figure out how to install it. Those devices cost about US$100, though Google sells a US$35 Chromecast device with fewer features.

“I keep hoping we will see convergence,” said Colin Dixon, chief analyst at nScreen Media, a research firm in Sunnyvale, California. “Unfortunately we keep seeing the number of operating systems increasing, not decreasing.”

Chet Kanojia, whose Aereo online television service has been trying to expand onto more devices, said the tendency for TV set manufacturers to differentiate their systems with unique features turns app development into “a royal pain.” That's because Aereo's engineers have to write new apps for each one.

The announcements at the International CES gadget show in Vegas include:

-- Mozilla, the nonprofit organization behind the Firefox Web browser, said it is putting its Firefox OS software on smart TVs, starting with Panasonic's. The code powering Web browsers had been adapted last year to run smartphones targeted at emerging markets. Now, Firefox will be tweaked further with Panasonic's help to work on bigger screens and incorporate TV-specific features such as electronic program guides. Panasonic expects to start selling TVs with Firefox OS later in the year. Other TV manufacturers will be able to use the same software without charge.

-- LG Corp. announced plans to power 70 percent of its smart TVs this year with the webOS mobile system it bought from Hewlett-Packard Co. last March. Although LG hasn't disclosed specifics, the use of webOS paves the way for owners of LG sets to control home appliances from the TV. For starters, LG said the new software will make its TVs easier to set up and use.

-- The streaming video device maker Roku Inc. said it is partnering with two large Chinese TV makers, TCL Corp. and Hisense International Co. Ltd., to incorporate its software so Roku apps can run on TVs without a separate device.

Several TV makers already have their own smart TV software. Opera Software is also trying to adapt its Opera Web browser to work on TV sets, similar to what Mozilla is doing with Firefox. Opera said some of its software is already on sets made by Sony, Samsung and Toshiba.

There also has been long-standing speculation that Apple is working on its own smart TV system, but the company hasn't said anything about it and there's no indication such a system is imminent. If Apple does make it, it would likely be limited to TVs under its own brand and would negate the need for a stand-alone Apple TV device.

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A DJI Innovations DJI Phantom 2 Vision aerial system is demonstrated in flight during a press event at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center for the 2014 International CES on January 5 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (AFP)

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