The Internet on Your TV: Finally Ready For Prime Time?

By  |  Friday, February 13, 2009 at 6:45 am

Web TV LogoMany years ago–I think it was 1998 or thereabouts–I wrote a big feature story for PC World on a bevy of new devices that aimed to bring the Internet to America’s TV sets. I spent weeks living with Microsoft’s Web TV, Gateway 2000’s Destination living-room PC, and other gadgets. They were the first spawn of the technology industry’s irrational exuberance over the idea that the Web and TV were a match made in heaven. I didn’t fall in love with any of them. (I do, however, remember enjoying playing games on the Destination’s giant screen–as I recall, it was all of 32 inches.)

Almost all the devices I tried flopped–Web TV was the closest one to a modest success, and it was embraced by an unexpected audience: senior citizens who wanted to stay in touch with family but who didn’t want to bother with the complexity of a full-blown PC. For close to a decade, the whole notion of putting the Internet on a TV mostly disappeared; even computers built to live in the living room have never really caught on. It wasn’t all that clear that very many people particularly wanted the Net on a TV.

Lately, though, the concept is back, in a bevy of incarnations. Not only am I writing about my experiences with watching Internet TV on a TV via Boxee’s software on an Apple TV, but I’m at work on a new PC World story about gadgets that bring Net TV and other Web content into the living room. And this time around, the whole idea seems more plausible.

How come? There are a number of factors at play:

It’s not about browsing. Most of those old devices tried to bring the Web browser to the TV–a Web browser that didn’t support the whole Web, was close to illegible, and required you to enter QWERTY text with a typical TV remote control. It’s a shocker they weren’t terribly popular, huh? By contrast, I can’t think of a single new product that wants to put a plain-vanilla browser on a TV.

It’s about entertainment. As in TV, movies, and music–all forms of content that have a strong track record of appealing to folks in their living rooms. Which is why devices such as Popcorn Hour and Roku’s Netflix streaming box make so much more sense than Web TV.

TVs are way better. A decade ago, your TV was a smallish, standard-def CRT, and text and still images looked horrible on it. Today, there’s a good chance you have a giant high-def flat screen that’s at least as Web-friendly as the computer monitor on your desktop.

Wireless broadband! Did I mention that Web TV involved 56-kbps dial-up? If not, it’s because I’ve blocked that fact from my mind. All of today’s approaches to Internet TV involve high-speed access, and many incorporate Wi-Fi (good thing, too, since most of us still don’t have Ethernet in our living rooms). Without broadband, the new devices would still be struggling just to download e-mail, and stuff like high-quality video would be unthinkable.

You might not need a box. I already have a cable box, a TiVo, a DVD burner, a SlingBox, and a Wii, which means I have no space left in my entertainment center and few available jacks on my TV–and hey, my wallet appears to be empty, too. Any new functionality would have to be pretty spectcaular to convince me to add yet another device to my TV setup. But there are plenty of examples of boxes you already have bringing Internet content to the TV: TiVo, xBox 360, and PlayStation are all doing it. And the next step beyond that are TVs with really good Internet capabilities built in. (Last week, I visited Yahoo to see its Connected TV platform, which will show up in sets from Sony, Samsung, LG, and Vizio, starting next month. I came away impressed–and a tad glum that there’s no way I can justify buying a new big-screen TV any time soon.

I’m not saying that it’s a given that any of these new products will be monster hits. (Apple TV might be the best-known one of the bunch, and even Apple itself keeps dismissing it as “a hobby.”) But for the first time, the possibiity of a monster hit emerging in the world of living-room Web products doesn’t seem like some overzealous marketer’s unlikely fantasy. I’ll share more thoughts as I use more of the new devices–and I’d love to hear what you think.

[Note: This post was originally published in Technologizer’s T-Week newsletter, delivered to your inbox for free every Friday–head here to subscribe.]


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5 Comments For This Post

  1. David Carr Says:

    Great post Henry. Thank you for sharing. Its amazing how this idea came back and looks like it might work this time. I would love to be a tester of these new devices and appliances that companies are making. I am not sure any of these devices will be big sellers. AppleTV has not taken off the way Apple hoped it would and it just shows that maybe the market is not really ready for devices like that. Maybe if the computer became the TV but was still a computer when we needed it to be a computer then it might be embraced. But the people who create commercials for TV would not be happy if everyone started watching TV on their computers. Good luck and keep testing those devices and writing about them.

  2. Aaron Stein Says:

    Boxee on AppleTV is the solution for me.
    Low cost hardware with a great piece of software that beings the web tv into my living room.

    In my case, I got it through which gave me the software (boxee) and the hardware (apple tv) without me needing to deal with hacks etc..

    I’m cable last. Viva la revolucion!

  3. pc tv cables Says:

    Harry – you don’t need a box. You already have one – your PC.

  4. Tom B Says:

    Nice point about the failings in the TV’s; the lack of broadband; and poor remotes. Innovation often requires the right infrastructure to catch on.The bar code was devised to track rail cars in a yard. It didn’t succeed until the signal to noise drastically improved by using lasers instead on regular light and until people thought to apply it in a retail context.

  5. carl Says:

    You know, I would love to lower my $90 (cable and broadband/Comcast) bill by subscribing to Netflix and dumping the cable portion. But, in Wash, DC, the cheapest broadband I can get from Comcast is apprx $57. True, this (in combination with Netflix) would still be cheaper by apprx $20 p/m, but the high price of “naked” broadband is, I believe, the biggest impediment to wider broadband adoption … price is often tied to the quality of the competition: Verizon’s FIOS has reached DC suburbs but not so for the city proper … even still, no one seems to be willing to offer naked broadband at speeds that don’t make you laugh. Oh, well ….

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