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Content road map remains blurry for HDTVs

Posted: 15 Jan 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Consumer Electronics Show? HDTV content? LCD TV?

While the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) presented TV with a new level of maturity as a beautiful piece of hardware, it was less clear what's next in content for the high-end screens.

Some TV makers are developing their own initiatives to push a little bit of Internet content to their latest TVs. Their efforts mirrorand probably will compete withbigger initiatives in cable companies to deliver services over the Open Cable networks they are installing.

Meanwhile PC makers are trying to recruit third-party applications for their living room TV products. This all comes at a time when studios and cable companies are ramping up new online video sources geared more for the PC screen.

Flat-panel TVs now command a whopping 37 percent of all consumer electronics revenues and three-quarters of those TVs are based on LCDs, said Scott Ramirez, VP of Toshiba's TV group, speaking at a CES press conference. Rear-projection TVs are declining fast, growth for plasma TVs is slowing and DLP screens seem to be confined to a high end niche.

Riding the trend, LG Electronics rolled out 24 new LCD TVs and just eight new plasma models. Expect the trend to continue for some time.

Sharp, which shipped about 74 million LCD panels last year, laid out plans for its 10th generation LCD facility in Osaka. The multi-company site will use 112 x 120-inch substrates capable of yielding 15 40-inch panels each when production starts in a couple years.

"LCD technology has completed only a little more than half of its possible evolution," said Toshihiko Fujimoto, CEO of Sharp Electronics Corp. at a CES press event.

Most of the LCD TVs rolled out at the show were 30- to 50-inch screens capable of 1080-progressive resolution, and many at 120Hz refresh rates. The big question at CES was what new content viewer will see on those massive screens in this era of the Internet.

Web push
Sharp rolled out AquosNet, a Web based push-service it plans for its high-end TVs. The proprietary service will send weather, stock, high-res slide shows and other bits of info to TVs via widgets that sit in a corner of the screen and can be customized by users. Sharp will use HomePlug AV powerline technology or an Ethernet link on the TV to get the data from its proprietary Web portal. But don't expect full Internet access.

"We don't want to ask people to work with keyboards. This is a lean back experience. Up to now PC/TVs have not been successful," said Bob Scaglione, a senior VP with Sharp U.S. subsidiary.

AquosNet uses a Linux-based browser that does not support video yet, so don't expect to call up your iTunes TV shows this way. The approach does mirror the kinds of services cable companies are demonstrating with their Open Cable Applications Platform which Comcast has rebranded tru2way.

AquosNet "absolutely will be [competitive with OCAP]," said Scaglione. "It gives TV makers more control over what content appears on their screen," he added.

Video player
Taking a different approach, LG announced a deal with NetFlix that will let the TV maker embedded technology into a "networked video player" later this year to link to the NetFlix video download Website. Neither company would give technical details about what embedded hardware or software they are using. But a Netflix spokesman said the company had a team of people at CES talking to other TV makers.

"LG has an exclusive on this for about a week," the NetFlix spokesman said. "We want to be in 100 boxes," he added.

Hewlett-Packard's Media Smart TV and home server, co-developed with Microsoft, are already on the Net via Wi-Fi. But they cannot yet access the full riches of cable and satellite TV content. Comcast said it is slogging through issues with the Windows software stack trying to determine if it is reliable and secure enough for two-way Cable Card connections. Satellite TV companies have been quietly working with Microsoft in the background for some time, but they had no news at CES.

Online video content
In the meantime, HP is testing the Net as a return path to the cable head-end so users can access video-on-demand and other services. "It's still in test mode, but it's probably the cleanest solution I've seen," said Phil McKinney, chief technology officer of HP's personal systems group.

The convergence of PC and TVs is "not quite smooth, there are some rough edges," he added. Meanwhile, HP and Microsoft are recruiting third-party applications developers to write interesting software for the PC-based home server they co-developed.

For their part, Hollywood studios have gotten the religion about online video in the two years since Disney first agreed to make some TV shows and movies available on Apple's iTunes Website.

"There will be an explosion of online video content" in the coming year, said Dan Fawcett, president of the digital media group at Fox Entertainment at a CES panel of Hollywood executives.

One audience member complained about the "Easter egg hunt" required to find good video on the Web. "That's exactly why we started Hulu," said Fawcett. "It's going to be a destination site supported by multiple studios to find the finest content from any source," he added of the service to be launched later this year.

Comcast launched a similar Website called Fancast at CES. It allows users to watch, find and buy a variety of movies and TV shows Comcast has aggregated as part of its cable TV service. Microsoft announced at CES new deals from a handful of studios making movies and TV shows available on its Xbox Live service.

"There are five or six interesting new players distributing video content, and many studies are supporting them so you will see a lot of traction in this area now," said Tom Lesinski, president of Paramount Picture's digital division.

Lesinski noted that "Zoolander" is now its top selling movie on iTunes. "We are selling 5- to 10-year-old movies in hundreds of thousands of units, so this is a significant new business for our library," he said.

Fawcett noted that many new high-def players for the Net are coming out with new content available for the Web every quarter. How much of that becomes available for those lovely new HDTV screens remains to be seen.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times




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