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Hooking Your TV to the Internet

January 6, 2007
On the University of Chicago Faculty Blog, Randy Picker asks How Do You Get a Picture on Your TV?  Specifically:

The emergence of the VCR and then the DVD unbundled video content. You no longer were stuck with the bundle provided by your cable company. We are now right at the edge of unbundling in even a bigger way. This is about both content and devices.

As to content, YouTube is clearly the early wave on this, though putting to one-side copyright violations, the real question will be how much amateur content people want to watch on their TVs. More interesting perhaps is The Venice Project, a new effort at building a p2p platform for distributing professional TV.

On the device side, there is a bunch of work to do. The Journal article quotes a Forrester Research study that says that 80% of those surveyed aren’t interested at any price in a device for moving content from their PCs to their TVs.

I think thinking about the differences between "TVs" and "Displays" is an interesting way to illustrate some of the issues and ultimately answer this question. Although there are not meaningful techincal distinctions between TVs and displays, the main difference is one of use: displays are connected to PCs, whereas TVs are, and are connected to, consumer electronics devices. This is why TVs are found in the "living room" and displays are found in the home office. Thinking about the difference between the two is helpful in understanding the real obstacles to getting internet content onto TVs.

The simplistic answer to the question of how we get internet content on to our TVs is that we just hook up PCs to the TVs. While that is possible, the vast majority of people do not want to sacrifice the ease of the consumer electronics experience (TV, DVDs, game consoles) for the unreliability, complexity and flexibility of the PC experience.

So the question for device manufacturers is how to deliver internet content to TVs in a way that is much more like a consumer electronics device.

Microsoft has done the best job of anyone at this so far, with the combination of Media Center PC and Xbox 360s as extenders. This solution was good enough for our home, but it is stil fraught with bad compromises: a need to reboot the Media Center PC acting as a server from time to time for various reasons; inability to easily play streamed internet video; complexity of playing downloaded internet video. Note that these aren’t (just) software issues or interface issues, but rather issues that relate to the architecture of the entire system.

None of these problems is insoluble, but they will actually need to be solved before people are interested in consuming internet content in the same way as they do TV.

Content providers have good reason to want these problems solved. Delivery of content by conventional consumer electronics means (cable TV, DVDs, CDs) is all bereft of meaningful copy protection. Once the problems identofoed above are solved, and available bandwidth to the home increases to the point that multiple HD on demand streams are possible, then content providers can once again get control of their content: its hard to skip commericials in, or copy, streamed video.

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