February 5, 2009

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It’s the Internet … on TV
Would you like to know more?

By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

Television and the Web have always had a somewhat antagonistic relationship. Recordings of shows end up on YouTube; commercial ad revenue slumps when people stop watching cable and get all their news online.

Attempts have been made to marry the two competing screens. WebTV was supposed to be a cheaper way to access the Internet, without a computer. Microsoft bought it and folded it into MSN TV, which still exists, but isn’t exactly a powerhouse. Networks have figured out that making their programs available online lets them at least stem the tide of piracy. It’s still not enough.

The two worlds might come together if some new hardware and software succeed this year. Microsoft might have been trying to get a piece of this action, in fact, when it was trying to buy Yahoo! recently. The company best known for its search engine and Web portal is joining with Intel and TV makers like Samsung and LG to provide Web content on televisions.

The key is “widgets.” Once a purely generic term, “widget” has come to denote a small, peripheral computer program like a clock or news ticker. Through either a set-top box or specially designed TV, widgets can run right on your screen during programming and, um, enhance your viewing experience.

What I mean is show you ads.

No, no, they really can do neat things, but they can’t be totally free, right? What exactly this service will be isn’t yet clear, but given that partners include Flickr, USA Today, YouTube and eBay, you can bet there will be links to advertisers. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing for consumers — instead of just reading a Web link at the end of every commercial, you can click it and buy whatever fabulous product it’s hawking right then and there.

Yahoo! has more than 4,000 Widgets available for download right now, and presumably many of them would be available on this new platform. There are the obvious — weather forecasts, calendars and the like  — as well as sillier and pointlesser things like mood rings, trivia and mini games.

The whole package is dubbed Internet@TV. It might be an excuse for a new television; LG, Samsung, Sony and Vizio were among the manufacturers displaying Internet-connected HDTVs at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this month. If you’re not ready to spring for a whole new television (or you already have), it’s quite possible that a dedicated Internet@TV box will be released.

It’s also quite possible that this platform will be built into other hardware. Game consoles connect to the Internet; so do some DVD and Blu-ray players. Apple TV connects to iTunes, and other boxes connect to their own services. An automatic update to your TiVo or Xbox 360 could include any or all of Yahoo!’s Widgets.

Look for more robust Internet connectivity in your living room devices in the coming years. And get your clicking fingers ready.