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25 February 2021

LG sets webOS free to tackle Android TV where it hurts

In opening up its smart TV operating system to third-party licensing, LG Electronics has dealt a major blow to Comcast’s own X1 licensing ambitions, as well as throwing down the gauntlet to Android, Roku and Amazon in the smart TV scene.

Releasing the webOS smart TV platform outside of the LG smart TV line-up will serve as a springboard for UX software developers specializing in LG’s webOS framework, those such as Accedo, 3SS, Norigin Media, and none more so than You.i TV which was recently snapped up by AT&T’s WarnerMedia.

Initially, LG plans to license webOS to niche smart TV manufacturers such as Ayonz (via its Blaupunkt, EKO, and Seiki brands), RCA, and Konka, before building up to bigger and better things. These brands mostly rely on Android TV, ranging from the original Android 4.2 platform to the modern Android TV 6.0 OS, with only RCA currently shipping a smart TV running Roku.

LG is greatly diversifying the operating systems available to these brands and their customers, while simultaneously squeezing Android TV out from the small smart TV brands where it has become so comfortable.

LG’s new “powered by webOS” initiative will equip smart TV brands with a platform based on its webOS 5.0 framework, including the familiar UX design as well as voice control, integrated AI algorithms, and – most importantly – access to OTT video apps including Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, DAZN, and its very own free LG Channels streaming service.

With LG having dreams of moving up the smart TV hierarchy, it begs the question of whether chief smart TV rivals including Samsung, Panasonic, Sony, and Philips would ever license webOS? In North America, Samsung smart TVs run the in-house Tizen OS, which has a flaky history, while Panasonic uses FirefoxOS, and Sony as well as Philips have both adopted Android TV.

These TV powerhouses are probably more comfortable licensing software from Google and Amazon than they are from a direct competitor, which is why LG is better off targeting the crop of cut-priced Chinese models which have taken a version derived from Android Open Source Project (AOSP) stripped of access to the Google app store.

The huge success of Roku on smart TVs in the US market is both an encouraging sign and a challenge for LG. Roku has grown its US smart TV market share from 36% in 2019 to 38% in 2020, boasting 51.2 million active accounts across all devices (not just smart TV) – which is just ahead of Amazon’s Fire TV platform with 50 million.

Meanwhile, Comcast has recently been flexing its muscles about licensing X1 to smart TV makers. Comcast has had great success in licensing the RDK-based X1 video platform to cable TV operators throughout North America, but – as Faultline said at the time in September 2020 – dangling a carrot in front of service providers with nothing to lose is a very different prospect from licensing that same carrot to an industry proud to be free of operator influence.

However, this entirely depends on whether Comcast means actual smart TVs, as in TV sets with a built-in OS like the ones we are discussing here, or connected TVs, an umbrella term for HDMI-connected streaming devices such as Roku and Chromecast. The comments of CEO Brian Roberts point firmly to the former, but then he has also mentioned developing standardized hardware with a common software stack to create an aggregation platform to bundle Comcast, Sky, and NBCUniversal together, but that’s a story to be revisited another day.

Breaking the webOS shackles will also provide LG with some welcome advertising revenues as ad-supported content gets consumed through its operating system.

“This has the potential to reshape the TV business for both technology and content providers while significantly growing LG’s presence and prominence in the global home entertainment market,” stated LG in a press release.