HDTVs and Internet Tie Knot in Vegas

There is no Elvis wedding chapel hosting the ceremony here in Las Vegas this week, but two technologies tied the knot: The Internet and HDTVs.

The marriage of TV and Internet content on one big screen in the living room has been a dream in the tech and telecom industries for years now. At this year's CES, a number of tech companies are taking the first major steps toward making that dream a reality.

Some of the most promising of those steps are being made by TV manufacturers introducing Internet-connected TVs, and media companies like Yahoo designing ways to get Web content onto those TVs.

A spate of new Internet-connected TVs were announced here at CES, including ones from Sony, Samsung, Panasonic, Toshiba and Vizio. Connected TVs come with an ethernet port on the back so that you can plug your DSL directly into the TV and watch YouTube videos, rent Internet movies from services like Netflix or view your Flickr photos from the comfort of your couch. You don't need a PC, a keyboard or a mouse, just a remote control.

Starting with the TVs, Panasonic announced two new connected TVs this year, as well as new direct-to-TV content agreements with Amazon movies, YouTube and others.

Similarly, LG announced direct-to-TV content arrangements with Netflix Watch Instantly, CinemaNow and YouTube. (A Netflix person I spoke to here at the show says his company intents to pipe its Watch Instantly movie service directly to every device "from toaster ovens to ham radios." LG also announced before the CES show that those same net video services could be accesses and viewed through their new connected Blu-Ray Disc players.

Sony's new XBR9 and Z-series televisions are both Ethernet-ready and will be able to stream video from the likes of YouTube, Amazon, and music from Slacker.

On the content side, Yahoo is leading the way with its new Yahoo ConnectedTV product, a platform allowing a series of "web widgets" to appear in a "dock" at the bottom of the screen of your Internet-connected TV. So while you're watching your favorite TV show, these "mini-applications" let you pop out to the Web and watch YouTube videos, social network on News Corp's MySpace.com, track stocks and sports teams using Yahoo's services, buy and sell on eBay, micro-blog on Twitter, or look at photos at Flickr.

Expect many other websites to develop widgets for Yahoo's ConnectedTV platform. I spoke casually with a Skype executive who wondered why his company did not already have one on display - a Skype widget would be a natural for Yahoo's platform.

Yahoo says that new connected TVs from Samsung, Sony, LG and Vizio will support its ConnectedTV widgets. Samsung will likely be the first TV maker to hit the market with Internet content on the TV this summer. Toshiba is said to have a separate agreement to provide Yahoo content on its new connected sets later this year.

The TV makers and Yahoo may have the most promising approach, but they're not the only ones trying to put Internet content on your TV.

For example, Netgear's new Internet TV Player, barely bigger than a deck of cards, is a new set-top device that streams a variety of Web TV directly to your TV screen, organizing it in a simple programming guide. You simply attach the device to a broadband connection near your TV and it's pretty much plug-and-play from there, Netgear tells me.

Netgear, like Digeo's Moxi DVR, wants to provide you with the software and hardware you need to store and organize the flood of digital content you already have, along with the stuff that you will stream from the Web. Netgear's new Digital Entertainer "Elite" set-top/media streamer now offers 500 gigabytes of content storage, as well as the ability to connect wirelessly to your home network. The device essentially grabs all the music, movies and images from your home network, organizes it in a menu, and allows you to watch it all on the TV in the living room.

Netflix has wisely developed a couple of new adapters which enable users to route HD video around the home using either the electrical wiring in the house or the existing cable wiring. Digeo's Moxi product does a very similar thing, with a slightly different approach, and a nicer interface.

My criticism of Netgear's (and many of the home networking companies') approach is that it does not facilitate enough direct interplay between Internet content and traditional TV content. For instance, the devices do not see what's playing on cable and intelligently give me related information or video from the Web.

Interestingly, Netgear's main competitors in the home networking space - Belking and D-Link - did not exhibit at this year's CES show. Cisco/Linksys

Setting the Stage for Social Viewing

Some of the most interesting Web TV aggregators are the ones that make watching TV a team sport.

Boxee is a neat software application that gathers video from the web (and from the stuff on your hard drive) and puts it in a very neat and easy to use interface. It reminded me of the spare and approachable design you see in Mac environments. You can also set it up to move around the web and find other video you like (Hulu, YouTube, CNN.com, whatever), and it will bring it into that same interface. You don't have to surf around the web, all your favorite web video is right in front of you.

But the really cool part is that you can see the video your friends are watching too. You form friend groups with other Boxee users, who give you tips on new stuff to check out. There's simply no better way to find good new video, music or anything else, than by getting referrals from like minds.

Monsoon's HAVA, a Slingbox-like video place shifting device does a similar thing, but in a slightly different way. Using the company's newly announced SociableTV service, not only can you watch your own cable anywhere and anytime, but you can now tune in to what your HAVA-using friends around the world are watching, too. If you like what they're watching, you can click on the small video window above their name and tune in.

Microsoft has been fighting to be the central media manager in your home for years now. CEO Steve Ballmer was here in Vegas yesterday hyping the new Windows 7 OS. One of the coolest aspects of the OS is digital media management and gather all types of media at your TV. Part of the OS is called HomeGroups, which give structure to the process of organizing all digital media, including TV and Web video, and distributing it to various devices around the home-PCs, TVs or wireless devices. Specifically, setting up a HomeGroup between two or more Windows 7 PCs automates the sharing of Libraries (collections of pictures, music files, movies, or documents), printers, and storage devices. We'll learn more about the media chops of this new OS as information becomes available.

These Three Screens

Of course many other hardware, software, gadgets and Web services shown at CES play some part of the digital media convergence theme described in the examples above-certainly too many to include here. Suffice it to say that much of the new tech development shown at CES this year is driven by a concept that the telecom companies have been calling the "Three Screens" ideal.

This means the ability to watch, read or listen to any kind of content (recorded or streaming live) on any kind of device (mobile or stationary) anytime and anywhere-wirelessly if possible. As I roamed the show floor thinking of this idea, much of the new development in everything from TVs to phones to storage devices seemed to make sense, and that's saying a lot at a huge show like this.

The convergence of traditional TV and the Web at the TV set is just in its beginning stages. Next year we'll see even more exciting synchronicities between content from the two mediums, all for our viewing and surfing pleasure. That is, if anybody has any money left for R&D in 2009 . . .