Web-enabled TVs Yahoo and Intel provide the glue

Ready access to web content through TVs took a big step toward the mass market at the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas as Sony, Samsung, LG, Toshiba and Vizio, among others, announced devices in the category - some mooted for launch as early as spring 2009. Of greater significance was the common choice of the Intel-Yahoo Widget Channel software platform to support them.

While demand for web content access via the TV is currently hard to assess, there is in our view an inevitability about the uptake of internet services in the living room as there was on mobile - whatever the naysayers currently argue. People increasingly want to join up the pieces of their digital existence and to access those same services wherever and whenever they want, in the most convenient way possible. TVs will play a major role in this.

Crucially, there was a remarkable level of agreement between these manufacturers in the way web content and services will be enabled on their devices. All have chosen the Widget Channel technology, co-developed by Intel and Yahoo, as a common framework for web services on their devices - primarily networked TVs, but also peripherals such as media streamers.

The commonality achieved through the adoption of Widget Channel is excellent news for web content and application developers looking to reach beyond the PC and (increasingly) mobile devices, into the heart of the living room.

The Widget Channel technology is based on the Konfabulator desktop widget engine acquired by Yahoo in 2005. Konfabulator, now known as Yahoo Widgets, is built on established web technologies, namely JavaScript, HTML and XML. With this familiar programming environment, the array of web content providers aligning themselves with this effort is unsurprising: eBay, MySpace, CBS, The New York Times, Netflix, Amazon, Blockbuster, Showtime, USA Today and Twitter, as well as Yahoo properties such as Flickr and Yahoo News, are among those pledging support from the outset.

Rich internet apps

While the CE industry has generally been fairly good at reaching agreement on key technologies (interfaces such as HDMI are a recent example), opting for a common software platform to enable web services was never a foregone conclusion.

The mobile phone industry has already demonstrated this time and time again, and the CE industry has looked in danger of following suit with several efforts to recreate the wheel extant. So the fact that numerous household names in CE have seemingly done so by adopting Widget Channel will provide a solid proving ground for the Web as a cornerstone of the connected home experience.

Nevertheless, Widget Channel is only the beginning for integrating web experiences with CE. More sophisticated rich internet application technologies, such as the Adobe-led Open Screen Project and Microsoft's Silverlight, are already being prepared for CE applications.

The CE vendors will need to develop a strong understanding of which of these technologies they need to support, based on regular dialogue with web content and application providers. Yahoo and Intel will also have to work hard to maintain their early advantage over the longer term.

These announcements do leave some important questions unanswered. Where, for instance, is the best place for the Widget Channel functionality to reside‾ The TV, a Blu-ray Disc player, a media streamer or elsewhere‾ Choice and flexibility in deployment within the home will be key here, to avoid unnecessary replication of functionality and the associated additional cost involved with adding the Intel-based subsystem to a device.

 

One class of CE device could be negatively impacted by the widespread enablement of web services to TVs enabled through these announcements: namely set-top boxes for conditional access TV services.

Common frameworks for web services are, in our view, considerably less likely to be adopted across the tightly-controlled service environments dictated by pay TV providers. This is despite the set-top box appearing to offer perhaps the ideal conduit for delivering web-based services into the living room.

As with earlier efforts to round up the internet into a mobile corral (WAP, operator portals, etc.), the Wild West spirit of the internet will be hard to contain in the connected home.

Tony Cripps, Senior Analyst and Service Manager

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