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Internet TV: Next attraction

Posted: 05 Nov 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Web? iTV? video?

It's time to plug the TV into the Web.

Companies have exhausted all sorts of shots at a convergence box for the past two decades, leaving a path strewn with breathless press releases and failed systems. More recently, the market has worked on an expanding array of STBs, most of which led users to a narrow set of video and music services.

Now, the pieces are being integrated to turn today's appealing flat-panel screens into full Internet clients. When consumer firms begin providing real Internet TVs (iTVs) in volume, they will inspire a new wave of Web services beyond today's Fancast, Hulu, iTunes and YouTube.

iTV "is a superb idea and it's going to be the future of TV," said Steve Perlman, founder of WebTV Networks, one of the field's pioneers, who now runs Rearden LLC, which incubates consumer startups. "It's just a question of when and how it's implemented," he added

Unpopular iTV's identity
First, the industry must define iTV. Search WebTV on Wikipedia and you will land ironically at a so-called disambiguation page that gives you both a history of Perlman's earlier effort and a description of streaming media.

Clearly, we don't know what iTV is or what it should be. Blame today's pile of STBs, each with its own handful of Internet-hosted services.

"It's being rolled out in an ignorant and fractured way," said Richard Doherty, principal of consulting firm Envisioneering. "There's no consistent description of what an iTV is. If you go to 10 retailers you would get 10 answers," he added.

Roku Inc. sells a $99 player that links to the Netflix service. LG Electronics provides a similar option, but it works through a Blu-ray disk player. Tivo Inc. Co. has forged links for all its digital video recorders with Amazon's video service, Rhapsody's music service and photo sites such as Google's Picassa.

Startup Vudu Inc.'s box links to its own movie service, built up from its direct proprietary deals with studios. Apple TV relies primarily on links to iTunes.

"The thing is, you have limited selections of content in systems that only work with certain TVs and Internet connections, where there are too many constraints," said Perlman.

Changing times
"An industry group known as the Consumer Electronics Association could play a critical role in defining the platform, even as it helps set expectations for HDTV," Doherty said. "We need a coherent industry knowledge that OEMs, content providers and retailers can point to and say, 'This is iTV,'" he added.

The time is ripe. Today's new sets are digital. Analog broadcasts will go off the air completely in the U.S. in February. Meanwhile, a growing collection of Web video sources is driving new use patterns.

"I have many college-age friends who have no plans to buy a TV," said Perlman. "Everything they watch is online," he added.

Let's take a stab at defining the iTV we'd like to see. It should be a full, no-compromise TV. It plays legacy over-the-air, cable, satellite or IPTV broadcast content in resolutions up to 1080p with picture-in-picture and all the other features to which we've grown accustomed. It also should be a full Web client capable to tap with equal ease a cable modem, DSL gateway or IPTV link to access anything on the net.

Multicontent offerings
A great iTV will present simple ways to navigate all content sources. It will give the best possible playback of the wide spectrum of low-quality Web and mobile media. It will enable PC mavens grab their mice and keyboards to hack through giant spreadsheets or obscure Web services, but it also will help novice users in TV modes insulated from the open Internet.

The iTV will also be a good home-network client that displays pictures, videos and music and reside on any other system on the net. It must be great at discovering PCs, cellphones, cameras, printers and whatever content or services those devices have.

The iTV also will be able to predict and even drive new scenarios. It will help users access and view high-definition (HD) home movies e-mailed from relatives vacationing in Europe, for instance, and will be the vehicle for finally bringing video conferencing to the living room. Ultimately, it's about spawning a big-screen, HD Web.


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