Switched On: The next step toward the IP tuner

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.
Five years ago, the first Switched On talked about the growing coziness between the iPod photo and video. Today, of course, the iPod and many other portable media players have embraced digitally-distributed video, yet the TV itself remains on the cusp of IP content distribution. But TV manufacturers that still shudder when they think of the WebTV experience of 1996 need to get their heads out of their modem ports. For the sake of video choice, it's time to support the broadband web of 2009 on TVs.

As we inch closer to the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show in January, we come upon the first anniversary of the wedding between television sets and the internet. While there were internet-enabled televisions before last year from HP and others, the online-enabled sets from Sony, Panasonic, Samsung and Vizio marked the real embrace of IP. And it wasn't just about the hardware -- the software included Yahoo's widget architecture and Netflix streaming movies.
At this year's CES, internet integration will likely take the next step as Adobe moves to add more members to its Open Screen Project and bring Flash to even more consumer electronics -- it's already headed to most of the major smartphone platforms, and the television is the next high-volume opportunity. Supporting Flash will open up an even broader world of internet video content to the TV. We may even see Flash apps offered in a smartphone-style app store.

But it's still not enough. CE companies have been motivated to add Internet connectivity because of the viability of internet video, but they have just scratched the surface. Perusing the listings of clicker.com, a new Web site that seeks to be the "TV Guide" of web-based internet shows, shows that free online TV shows go far beyond the well-guarded walls of Hulu.

Flash will open up an even broader world of internet video content to the TV.


That's not to say that consumer electronics companies should seek to make the TV a bona fide alternative to the PC as a primary internet access device. Indeed, with broadly available cheap netbooks and slates cropping up, the TV remains at a disadvantage for general web surfing. Rather, it is the support of web-based development standards such as AJAX and HTML 5 that are going to be increasingly important for supporting a wide array of TV show sites optimized for video the way that portable web sites have now been optimized for the iPhone.

And while they would need to be adapted to a less powerful television platform, we are starting to see free-form remote controls from the likes of Hillcrest Labs and now GlideTV that take into account flexibility, efficiency, and ease of use.

The last piece of the puzzle is the guide. Most electronic programming guides are still focused on the linear nature of programming, not tracking down TV shows across multiple web sites that may have shifting episodes available. But this is absolutely an addressable issue. Solving it in the short-term could yield a real value-add to TV purchases, and perhaps long-term revenue streams siphoned from cable and other TV providers.


Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.