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CES: Internet TVs -- early obsolescence, or curated content?

January 8, 2009 |  8:23 am

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LAS VEGAS -- Here's a cautionary tale for anyone lusting after a TV that can connect directly to the Internet.

At their press events today, Samsung, Panasonic and Sony all showed (or, more accurately, talked up) this year's versions of their Internet-enabled TV sets. In all three cases, the updates took applications that weren't very impressive initially and made them more compelling. Samsung transformed its InfoLink feature, which used to offer only text feeds from a handful of online services, into a fully multimedia application based on Yahoo's TV Widgets. The latter is an open platform available to any company that wants to adapt its Web-based content to it; among the first are MySpace, eBay and CBS. Panasonic updated its Viera Cast feature with new sources of content, most notably Amazon's video on demand service. And Sony announced that its Internet Video Link -- a $300 box that plugs into the back of selected Bravia TVs -- would support more content (including Yahoo's widgets), work with more models, and be built into a handful of high-end sets.

Yahoo_tv_widgetsThe companies' advancements illustrate different trade-offs for consumers, however. In a blow to Samsung's customers, the new feature won't be available on its current ethernet-equipped TVs -- many of which will continue to be sold this year. According to Tim Baxter, a Samsung executive vice president, the older models aren't capable of supporting Yahoo's widgets.

Panasonic and Sony customers don't have that problem. But that's because, rather than enabling them to view all the media available online, their sets can only tune in content selected by the manufacturer. The two companies essentially act as curators, deciding which content to provide. They act as quality and technology filters, checking that the content will work on their TVs -- that's what assures that new material will be compatible with older TVs -- and that it won't look bad on a large screen. Yahoo does the same with its platform (which also will be available on Vizio, LG and possiblly Toshiba sets), reviewing proposed widgets "to make sure they don't cause any problems for the TV," said Rich Ejekiel, a director in Yahoo's Connected TV division. In other words, these efforts provide a walled garden of content, a subset of what's available online, groomed for their TVs. This approach doesn't eliminate the sets' technical limits -- the relentless advances online guarantee that content will emerge that the sets just can't handle -- but it helps. So does the set manufacturers' and Yahoo's natural interest in adding more and more content. Yet there's no escaping the fact that the consumer is not in control. Will Sony strike a deal with an edgy online video source that's not scrupulously protective of copyrights? Will Panasonic support a short-form video channel sponsored by Samsung?

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

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