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Small screens have a big future in the home

The NPD Group's Ben Arnold makes a case for connected TV platforms, adding more screens instead of more services.

LG smart TV
Connected TVs like LG's LW6500-series are gaining in popularity. LG

As consumers move to the Web for convenient anytime/anywhere access to the content they want, connectivity will play a larger role in TV viewing. The marriage of the Internet to the TV screen seems perfectly timed in this respect, with services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Pandora almost standard on most connected sets.

With nearly two in three displays 50 inches and larger being Internet-connectable, according to The NPD Group's Retail Tracking Service, the feature is approaching ubiquity on large screens.

As a way to easily deliver more content, the Web seems like a natural fit for primary displays in the home that tend to have larger screens. But as the installed base of streaming video and other apps continues to grow and become a larger part of the everyday user's consumption routine, demand for access to them across the household is also likely to increase, giving rise to a new market for smaller connected-TV screens suited for secondary rooms in the home.

Currently, just 1 percent of TVs under 32 inches sold are connectable, and consumers largely don't expect them to be. The NPD Group's Consumer Tracking Service reports that just 10 percent of recent purchasers of sub-32-inch TVs indicated that connectivity was a factor in the decision to buy. Usage of small connected screens such as tablets to watch content and access apps, however, suggests a larger trend toward integrating smaller, smart screens.

Apple's Airplay and the just-announced SmartGlass from Microsoft highlight how small screens can be used with primary ones to share content and connect devices, thus changing how the TV is used.

Why would TV manufacturers bother to invest in smaller screens? From a hardware perspective, connectivity would help slow or even reverse average selling price declines (average prices for flat panels less than 32 inches have fallen 19 percent in the past year).

Additionally, the new connected form factor could give rise to different uses around the household, helping to reignite demand for smaller screen sizes. Revenue from the growing number of services that manufacturers offer on their connected-TV platforms could also potentially get a shot, as the numbers of owners and users increase.

Like connected large-screen TVs, smaller screens also have the power to significantly diminish demand for "under the TV" content devices such as Blu-ray players, digital-media receivers, and cable boxes by offering more streamlined access to video content. And like tablets, smartphones, and even e-readers, smaller-size connected TVs could further hasten the decline of Netbooks and other low-price PCs by presenting consumers with yet another option for conducting client-light Web-based tasks.

NPD's recent Tablet Adoption and Insights Report, for example, shows that consumers who own a tablet and Netbook more often use the slate for social networking (52 percent vs. 33 percent) and e-mail (70 percent vs. 54 percent). The addition of a wireless keyboard and mouse further erodes one's need for a PC by adding a comparable interface.

In the end, it's unclear whether every screen in the home needs to be connected, but consumer usage patterns and the draw of online for a variety of tasks indicates that households are heading in that direction.

In less than five years, consumer device ownership has gone from two primary screens (TV and PC) to four (adding smartphones and slate devices), and as content and apps become "must have" services, the next transition will likely be providing more seamless access and integration across the entire home and all the devices within it.

Beyond today's ubiquitous music and video services, social-media apps, home system monitoring, and even traffic and weather reports, services providing data in real time that many of us use might find a useful place on small connected screens in the home.

While manufacturers add more apps and services to their connected-TV platforms with every firmware update, it's unlikely that all of them will be best experienced on a 50-inch screen. Consumers are constantly connected both inside and outside the home; if 4-inch screens are able to demand so much attention, surely 32-inch ones can too.