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Published: Saturday, 1/17/2009

TV, Internet: A perfect union

BY KIRK BAIRD
BLADE STAFF WRITER

LAS VEGAS It was the perfect Las Vegas wedding: the Internet and television.

Only a few years ago, the two were joined together at the International Consumer Electronics Show for what appeared to be a union of perfect bliss, as leading tech companies assured CES-goers the future of television was in accessing content through the Internet.

Alas, the couple fell on hard times, as the technology to access online content was costly and not particularly user-friendly, not to mention that most homes didn t have the high-speed broadband connection necessary to deliver the information.

Now it appears the TV-Internet marriage may have a fairy tale ending after all.

At the 2009 CES last week, Internet-imbedded technology in TVs, DVRs, Blu-ray players, and other set-top boxes made a compelling case that the technology to bring aspects of the PC to the TV has fully arrived.

There s been an effort to bring the Internet to the TV in some fashion for the past decade, said Mary Ragland, media manager for Intel s digital home group. I really do think this is the beginning of what your TV grows up [to be].

In fact, owners of Xbox 360s, TiVos, Roku Digital Video Players, and AppleTVs already have begun wading in the Internet content waters by streaming movies directly to their TVs via Netflix, Amazon on Demand, and iTunes, while Playstation 3 offers its own movie service. With a reasonable broadband connection, most standard-definition movies stream almost seamlessly; even high-definition movies, which are shown in 720p, show little to no lag time on a fast connection.

But the demos at this year s CES prove that tech companies want to push what s available to consumers beyond movies and TV shows. Just as Smartphones have given cell phones the ability to go beyond just making and receiving calls to browsing the Web, updating social network pages such as Facebook, and watching live network TV and cable programming, TVs can now access limited online content such as stock updates, weather reports, AP news, YouTube, Flickr, and MySpace.

It s all about the all-in-one-feature, said Laura Hubbard, a spokesman with Consumer Electronics Association, which sponsors CES.

People want to have ease and accessibility, she said. They wonder why, if my phone can do all these things, can t my other devices do that?

And as the technology becomes easier to use and more affordable, more consumers will be able to connect to the Internet from devices in their homes, Ms. Hubbard said.

At CES, several of the leading consumer electronics manufacturers again demonstrated Internet-imbedded sets in addition to BD players.

Panasonic, for example, last year introduced its line of Internet-connected TVs that feature Viera Cast, which allows owners free access to YouTube videos and Google s Picasa Web albums. Viera Cast has a built-in Ethernet interface no external box or PC is required and is accessed via a single button on the TV remote.

As far as our content, it s been called one of our most popular services, said Pete Byer, a Panasonic spokesman.

In fact, Panasonic is imbuing its Viera Cast-enabled HDTVs and a new line of Blu-ray players with Amazon Video on Demand, allowing consumers to choose from 40,000 films and TV programs to watch and purchase.

Also on board the Internet-TV bandwagon are Sony and Samsung, both of which demonstrated their ultimate goal to bring online content to the living room via HDTVs and BD players.

Perhaps the biggest announcement in the emerging technology was delivered jointly by Intel and Yahoo, which teamed up to release the Widget Channel, a TV software application embedded into televisions that allows viewers to interact with the their TV through online content. The Widget Channel is powered by Intel s new Media Processor CE 3100 chip, created specifically for consumer electronic devices such as TVs, BD players, and cable set-top boxes.

The Widget Channel allows users to browse Yahoo sports, MySpace, the Weather Channel or AP News while still watching their regular TV programming. The Widget Channel information appears as a crawl at the bottom of the screen, and is fully customizable including the ability to create personal widgets. ABC and CBS are reportedly developing their own widgets as well.

Like Viera Cast, the Widget Channel is all about simplicity.

Intel s approach is to complement the TV and not turn the TV into a PC, Ms. Ragland said. It really is seamless. We re not bringing keyboards into the living room; all of these functions you will be able to control with a remote control.

The technology is not only easier to use, it s also faster and easier to deliver thanks to an increase in residential broadband speeds and a proliferation of special software. That makes the cost of delivering content cheaper, said Evan Young, director of product marketing for TiVo, which is increasingly integrating broadband and broadcast content into its DVR devices, including the ability to search Cnet, New York Times, and The Onion.

A few years ago it was a few dollars to deliver a new gig, he said. Now it s a few cents. Lowering the cost is important to get the economics to work.

With the technology more affordable, the once-wide gap between the lean forwards (PC users) and the lean backwards (TV watchers) is narrowing.

This stuff is mainstream, Mr. Young said. People who are buying TiVos today are overwhelmingly hooking it up to broadband. People want to take advantage of the broadband services.

While the new technology appears to be drawing the computer and television closer together, Young and others are adamant they will remain separate.

I wouldn t call it a convergence of TV and a PC, Mr. Young said, but using the Internet to make TV better.

Contact Kirk Baird at: kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.



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