The Economist recently predicted that television will turn a significant corner this year: For the first time, more money will be spent on pay television outside the U.S. than within it.

As the article points out, pay TV has generally been a U.S. phenomenon. Nevertheless, as a former media analyst, I'd contend that even the likes of Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA), Cablevision (NYSE:CVC), DirecTV (NASDAQ:DTV), and Verizon (NYSE:VZ) have yet to get the most out of the television's capabilities. For instance, some operators have the ability to offer thousands of programs on basic video-on-demand, but none has ever made the functionality as user-friendly as it might be.

So we'll see how productive companies can be abroad, where the total pay-TV tab is expected to top $95 billion this year. Degrees of success will likely depend on a combination of the specific country and the operator involved. India, for example, is one of the hottest markets around, as a settled state-run operator and competitive satellite operators bring the pay-TV penetration rate north of 70%. Other countries, like China, are strangled by regulation, and therefore deal with rates well below 50%.

Whichever countries see the most growth, you can almost be sure that the pay TV being watched today will differ substantially from the pay-TV of yesteryear. The popularity and rise of Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone and its App Store have totally changed the consumer experience, and companies like Nokia (NYSE:NOK) and Motorola (NYSE:MOT) have rushed to mimic the success of the smartphone, with all its widgets and user intuitiveness. Just as the mobile world has had to adapt to the iPhone, so will the world of pay TV.

Most people familiar with the Internet and iPhone technology want all of their electronics to behave similarly. This means set-tops should have easy-to-navigate screens, touch technology, and applications galore. As industry specialist Ivan Verbesellr puts it, "The iPhoneisation of pay-TV is under way".

When those applications become relatively commonplace, the cable and satellite operators will be virtually forced to pick up the pace of interactive capability and other innovations. Most of those applications have been around for nearly a decade, but the operators move at a snail's pace in implementing anything new. Only recently have I concluded that the global pay TV movement just may actually be led by the mobile phone set.

It seems that Comcast's planned acquisition of GE's NBCU is being undertaken in part to facilitate some of the advances discussed above. On that basis, I'd keep a close watch on the biggest of the capable operators. It may just make you some money in the years ahead.

Comcast is currently rated a two-star stock my Motley Fool CAPS. Could recent events at the company send it higher?

Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own shares in any of the stock listed above. He does welcome your questions or comments. Nokia is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection. Apple is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. The Motley Fool has a globally respected disclosure policy.