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Wanted: Sexy HDTV That Connects to the Internet and Services All DVRs

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This article first appeared in the April/May issue of Streaming Media magazine. Click here for your free subscription.

I admit it. Technology has spoiled me. As a result, I now enjoy a special relationship with my TV set, or actually my DVR, that challenges my fondness for my GPS navigation system. But as much as I love my DVR (I’m devoted to it and I’m very appreciative of all it does for me), I have developed a bit of a wandering eye—for TVs that are connected to the internet.

I’ve recently started to focus on some of my DVR’s limitations. I’ve started to wonder if I can do better. For example, it really bothers me when the other love of my life, my wife, decides to watch a TV show and records another at the same time I’ve scheduled to record one of my favorite shows. My DVR can only record two shows at a time (including whatever I’m watching). Another thing that gets me upset is if I want to record a show on a different TV, it requires another DVR, and I can watch only what I store on that DVR on the TV it is connected to. I've begun to wonder if there is something better.

In Search Of …
At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, I strolled through Panasonic’s booth and couldn’t help but notice a very sexy and sleek 150" plasma TV. But what really caught my eye was another model off in the corner that a bunch of other guys were ogling. It was called a Viera TV, and it had a built-in set-top box (is that an oxymoron?) that was able to connect directly to the internet and play YouTube and other content. Wow! That got me a bit excited. It could also beam HD content from a video recorder wirelessly to the TV set. I was impressed. I spoke to the Panasonic representative about whether it could be connected to a personal video server to record all my shows. He said they didn’t have anything like that yet. Panasonic just has a partnership with YouTube that allows viewers to stream anything that YouTube provides. Then I asked the representative if it came with a hard drive; he gave me this wide smile and said, "Not yet." He did say they were working on a 32GB SD card, though. I asked him when any of this technology would be ready. "Soon," he said.

Just about this time, my wife called me to complain that one of our DVRs was acting up again. We use a satellite provider, and every now and then we get a 771 message, which means it can’t find the satellite. Consequently, all the shows I’ve set to record aren’t recording. Luckily, there’s a reset button. I told her where to find it, she pressed it, and—voilĂ !—it worked again. I’ve been meaning to swap out this defective DVR, but I’ve been too busy (and I’ve already had to send three others back).

Soon I found myself at Sony’s booth and my mouth dropped when I saw this beautiful model called a Bravia, a name I later learned from a rep derived from "broadband video via the internet." (I know, it doesn’t quite make sense to me either.) This line of TVs was introduced at last year’s CES, but the model I saw this year appeared slimmer and the HD picture was really crisp and vibrant. It was connected to a website where you could stream television and other content from providers including Yahoo!, AOL, and Crackle, Sony’s own video-sharing network. I asked the rep if it could record TV shows or other content like video on demand (VOD). He said no, so I asked him when he thought a hard drive and/or DVR capabilities would become available. Of course, you know what he said: "Soon."

I later found myself at Hitachi’s booth. There was a lot less fanfare around its internet-capable TV than at the other booths, and there weren’t any oglers. I spoke to the Hitachi representative, who was very proud of his model, which didn’t have a name but seemed to be a real workhorse. It didn’t have any special software like the Bravia or the Viera, but it connected to the internet seamlessly and streamed content from various websites. Of course, it didn’t have any DVR capabilities and it didn’t connect to any kind of storage device; in fact, it seemed more like a prototype than an actual product.

Clearly, televisions that connected to the internet were the buzz at this year’s CES, whether they were ready for prime time or not. I wanted to learn more about these new products, so I decided to contact some of the consumer electronics (CE) manufacturers that were making a lot of noise at CES. Panasonic announced with Comcast in one of the keynote presentations that it was going to support a new interactive TV technology called tru2way and deploy more than 400,000 boxes to Comcast customers. This was significant, because, historically, Motorola and Scientific Atlanta have dominated the set-top box (STB) market. I reached out to Panasonic’s PR folks to talk about their new products. After several messages and many phone calls, I was told that it was really hard to find someone who could talk to me as only a few people were close enough to the technology to talk intelligently about it, and they were all "unavailable."

Undeterred, I reached out to Samsung, who made a lot of noise at CES about its Series 7 Plasma HDTV, which "Combines Outstanding Picture With Unparalleled Access To Digital Media!" (or so the company bragged in its press release). After several emails, a Samsung PR person informed me, "Unfortunately our two executives who could speak in detail about [these products] are unavailable due to business travel." I contacted Hitachi and someone from its PR department emailed me, stating, "Your interest is advanced technology and those are handled mainly by Japan HQ lab and developing divisions." He asked if I would be kind enough to email him some questions for his people to answer. I did, but my questions remain unanswered.

Being the narcissist that my wife claims I am, I was beginning to take it personally, thinking I was getting the brush off from these CE people because I was too insignificant for them to talk to. That’s when I touched base with Kurt Scherf, vice president and principal analyst for Parks Associates, a leading consulting company specializing in emerging consumer technology. Scherf maintains a blog about digital living technologies on Parks Associates’ website. His company recently issued a report about the broadband and VOD market, which it estimates will grow to a little more than $7 billion by 2012. Scherf told me he was having similar problems talking to CE people about their internet TV strategies. "They are all pretty tight-lipped at this point," he said. "We are investigating this space right now and it is difficult because they are leery—they may have a secret sauce they are cooking up and they don’t want to give it away but secondarily I think it’s simply because they don’t know much about this market."

I asked Scherf to ponder why it has taken traditional CE manufacturers so long to address this market. "I think number one is figuring out [whether] certain technologies were mature enough, either on a cost level or certainly on a performance level, or both I would suppose, to really go ahead and embed the technology into their sets," he said. Most TV manufacturers, he continued, are asking, "Is there a business we can build out of this, or would this just be sunk costs into the price of the set? I think that is a huge question for them.

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