Can Internet TV Succeed?
Sony’s Video Link module on its Bravia TVs, like the KDL-46V3000 46-inch LCD, lets viewers navigate web content from AOL, Yahoo and Grouper through a convenient onscreen menu.
TV manufacturers are finally embracing the Internet with a renewed vigor. But can they successfully merge the Web's vast content with our big screens?
Gone, thankfully, are the days of passive TV when we’d stay home to watch a program at its allotted time and were dependent on the scrolling cable guide to view the schedule. DVRs and electronic programming guides brought us into the age of active TV, where we can access programming and schedules on our terms. Now get ready for the next generation: interactive TV. The Internet has found the TV, and the two are gearing up for a long and promising relationship.
Sony began the movement last year with its Video Link modules, which provided a pathway to the Internet. This year, Samsung and Sharp have followed with Ethernet-ready TVs. You provide the Internet connection, and they pull in the content.
Unlike early stabs at Internet through TV (remember WebTV?), today’s generation doesn’t aim to provide a full Internet experience. You won’t, for instance, be Googling an obscure actor to find his list of movie credits. The TV makers have brokered deals with content providers for specially designed material as alternate programming for viewers. Content ranges from news headlines to stock quotes to full-length movies.
Info On Demand
Sony rolled out Video Link slowly last year as part of a Bravia TV strategy based on optional Video Link modules that plug into the back of the TV. Services are free, but the module tacks on another $300 to the cost of the TV. The fare includes video clips from AOL, Yahoo, and Grouper and movie trailers and music from Sony properties. This year at the Consumer Electronics Show, the company took the concept to the next level, announcing additional content partners including CBS Interactive.
With half a year’s experience on the books, Sony research indicates consumers appreciate not having to type in a web address or surf for content. The company doesn’t disclose the content provider it uses for its news, traffic and weather services, but Randy Waynick, senior vice president of the home products division, says the ability to have instant access to local traffic reports, headlines and forecasts by pushing one button on the remote has proved very popular. “You don’t have to wait for 25 minutes past the hour to get your local news anymore,” Waynick says. Instead, consumers issue the command for information, which is updated every 30 seconds to one minute.
This year, Video Link customers will have access to full-length content from Fearnet and CBS Interactive. If you missed last night’s episode of CSI, Waynick says, don’t sweat it. Tune in the next day, and watch it on demand. Waynick sees on-demand, web-based video replacing the need for the DVR. “You look at the success of TiVo, and it’s because of the convenience of recording a program and watching it later,” he says. “Now you don’t even have to go through that step. All of the material is going to be out there on the Internet published by the content providers, and you just go and pick it whenever you want.”
Hot Button Feeds
Just how much the Internet and the TV should merge is a topic of debate in the industry. While Samsung takes the position that the marriage of the Internet and the TV is the way of the future, company research and focus groups indicate that the mainstream consumer wants a measured fusion. “We’ve seen some resistance to the two technologies merging, says Dan Schinasi, senior manager of product planning for HDTV at Samsung. “Microsoft has been working on it for 10 years—and it will happen—but we believe it’s going to take a little time for people to get accustomed to the merger. Right now, people see what they do on the PC as an individual activity, and watching TV as a much more communal experience.”
It’s with that in mind that Samsung has rolled out InfoLink, an RSS feed service with content supplied by USA Today. Available on the Series 6 and 7 flat-panel TVs, InfoLink comes into the TV via an Ethernet jack on the back of the set. Users tap into the information via a “hot button” on the TV’s remote control and navigate through the categories using the standard up, down, left, and right buttons. They can opt out of the service if they choose.
Some of the InfoLink content is personalized, according to Schinasi. Users can enter stock symbols for securities they’re following, and the information is stored for easy access the next time the user taps that section. Entering a zip code under the weather section tailors forecasts to their particular area. But the experience is meant to provide short bites of information rather than the more detailed chunks of data found on the web. You won’t, for example, be able to find record-breaking temperatures for your location or plug in the number of shares you own in a stock to view the value of your portfolio. “This isn’t a service for day traders,” Schinasi says.
Feeds are selectable and include breaking news, money, life, politics, technology, and travel. Data is automatically updated every 10 to 20 minutes, or consumers can hit the button for an immediate update. Schinasi calls the InfoLink offerings “a baby step in the merger of the PC and the web delivering content to the TV viewing experience.” Baby steps could transition quickly to a full run by next year, though. With Sony having taken a big leap from limited feeds to full-length movies in a year, “we will not fall behind,” Schinasi says.
But current TVs won’t be able to access future services, Schinasi notes. “This experience is closed,” he says of the current crop of web-enabled TVs, acknowledging that services and features could even be dropped in coming years depending on market acceptance. The TVs wouldn’t be obsolete in that case, he says, but they may require an outboard box to access future services.
Extending Your PC Media
You don’t need to buy a Series 6 or 7 TV to access web-enabled features. Samsung is also introducing this spring a Digital Media Adapter ($199 for the kit, which includes an adapter box, HDMI cable, remote control and Ethernet jack) that will enable virtually all Samsung TVs to access Microsoft’s Media Center Experience (MCX) content. The device becomes a virtual Media Center Extender for PCs with Vista Home Premium or Ultimate operating systems.
In addition to culling photos and nonencrypted music and video files from a user’s PC, the Digital Media Adapter taps into Internet content from free and premium services including MSNBC, TV.com, Vongo and others.
Sharp is also moving into the web-enabled TV world with information provided by various content suppliers. The service, called Aquos Net, is available on the SE94U Series and D74U Series TVs ($3,199 to $10,999 for 46-, 52- and 65-inch TVs). According to Bob Scaglione, senior VP and group manager in Sharp Electronics’ product and marketing group, the TVs carry a 200 percent premium for the web access, which ties consumers both to the web and to the Sharp tech support team. If the concept proves appealing enough to consumers, Sharp will extend it to the rest of the line, Scaglione says.
To access the information, users create and configure “widgets” to check everyday information, such as stock quotes and the local weather, which consumers can view in full-screen or split-screen mode. Content includes customized forecasts from Weatherbug, stock quotes and charts from NASDAQ, comic strips from UClick and 1080p still images from Sharp Gallery. Potential future providers include NBC, Traffic.com and Gallery Player. The latter provides high-def, rights-protected images of famous artwork.
“Consumers love having instant access to information that is important to them, like weather and stocks, when they’re on the Internet,” says Scaglione. “But they spend a good deal of time relaxing in front of their televisions where their PCs may not be situated. We believe consumers would enjoy some of the same information conveniently pushed to their Aquos television so they can stay informed without having to move to another room and turn on the PC.”
In addition to Internet content, Aquos Net customers have access to Aquos Advantage Live, a feature that enables Sharp technical support staff (only with the permission of the TV owner) to access and control specific settings and diagnostics via the broadband connection. The settings range from usage-related inquiries, such as configuring the remote control for shortcuts to favorite broadcast channels, to set-up issues related to hooking up external components. Additional resources include frequently asked questions, user manuals and other information involving the TV.
The Way of the Future?
What’s next for the web-enabled TV? Will we be able to order the sweater we covet on Desperate Housewives with the click of the remote? “With the power of the Internet, anything is possible,” says Scaglione. “That’s why we’re reaching out to independent content developers to create new services that cater to the TV viewer.”
Sony’s Waynick effuses optimism for the possibilities of the web-television marriage. “Anything you can conceive of on your PC we have to train ourselves to think of in the TV environment,” he says. “The horizon offers so many opportunities that go beyond what the TV does today.”
Waynick has a strong vision of what the TV will become, and it’s far more than just streaming video content via the Internet. There’s no technical reason that the personalization of the PC can’t be transferred to the TV, he maintains, but he does note the limitations.
“Do you want to do spreadsheets on your TV?” Waynick asks. “Probably not. But you might want to be able to tap into CBS and get a narration of how a scene was shot.” Sports fans may get the most out of the supplemental information. “Imagine watching [March Madness], and you have interactivity and CBS.com,” he says, referring to the constantly updating scores and stats. “You have instant messaging on PCs,” he says. “Imagine that dynamic injected into the home entertainment experience.”
The merger of Internet and TV won’t be without its challenges. For now, most web-based content isn’t in high definition, for instance, but is produced for the small screen for short-distance viewing. When scaled up to 1080i or 1080p at 10 feet away in the living room, the resolution will suffer, and that could easily detract from the benefits. Waynick thinks competition among content providers to show their work in the best possible light will lead to advances in resolution.
Security and technical issues could come into play as well. Scaglione notes that while the Aquos Advantage service is expected to work with most Internet service providers, there is the possibility that certain firewalls could restrict access to the service. Samsung’s Schinasi says, “Network security is typically not a concern because no sensitive personal data is sent or received.” Waynick asserts that security and viruses aren’t something to worry about with the TV, at least, because the Video Link module doesn’t connect directly to the PC. He says there are no programming codes or viruses that would be valid on a TV operating system. The networking aspects for now remain largely unchartered waters.
Despite the uncertainties, manufacturers are sanguine about the possibilities involving the Internet and the TV. “We see a very vibrant future of television—a redefining of television,” Waynick says. “TV as we know it today is going to radically change in the near future.”
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