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TV Over the Web: Still a Fuzzy Picture

At Macworld, Apple failed to announce any advances to its Apple TV product.
At Macworld, Apple failed to announce any advances to its Apple TV product. (By Paul Sakuma -- Associated Press)
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By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, January 15, 2009

Every January, thousands of computing and electronics firms crowd into convention center halls in two West Coast cities. There, they hope to show us how much better our PCs, TVs, phones, cameras, music and video players, and other devices could be if only we bought the right upgrades.

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But what if those companies don't have any better idea about how these products should evolve than the rest of us? That's a fair question to ask after visits to the Macworld Expo in San Francisco (likely in its last year, since Apple won't participate anymore) and the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

It's not that either show lacked evidence of the gadget industry's capacity for brilliance. At Macworld, Apple introduced a new version of its iPhoto software that, once you tag a few pictures of friends in your collection, tries to find other photos of them on your computer. At CES, Palm (yes, the company that spent the last few years watching its relevance evaporate) unveiled a sleek, slim smartphone called the Pre that can update your calendar and contacts list from sites like Google Calendar and Facebook.

But on TV's transition to a new way of getting programs into homes, one of the toughest issues facing the computing and electronics worlds, a lot of companies are still fumbling for a solution.

This isn't the transition from analog to digital over-the-air broadcasts. As painful as this effort has been -- the shut-off of analog TV transmissions may yet be pushed back from Feb. 17 -- we can see the finish line.

But the switch from cable, satellite, fiber and over-the-air transmissions to also tuning to shows over the Web faces much bigger problems.

The Web abounds with sources of video: iTunes Store purchases and rentals, Amazon's video-on-demand service, network Web sites, third-party TV portals such as Hulu, YouTube, Netflix's "Watch Instantly" feature and so on. Depending on your tastes, these options could let you drop cable or satellite service entirely.

But the only way to bring all this content to your TV is to plug a laptop or desktop into your TV.

Manufacturers have been trying to build simpler, cheaper solutions to this problem, but the evidence at this year's Macworld and CES suggests that TV's Web transition remains years from completion.

At Macworld, the first of last week's two shows, Apple failed to announce an update to its Apple TV box, a small box that hooks up to a TV and plays music, photos and videos from nearby computers and from some online sources. This device works great for iTunes and YouTube video, but not any other site (although crafty users can install hacks, such as CES exhibitor Boxee's software, to add access to extra sites). Now we'll have to wait longer yet to see whether Apple TV can deliver on its promise.

At CES, many HDTVs and Blu-ray players came with their own Web video access. For example, LG, Samsung, Sony and Vizio plan to ship sets with Yahoo software to play video from a handful of big-name sites (developers at other sites can write their own "TV widgets" to make them viewable on these TVs). Panasonic, meanwhile, is including its own software in its TVs and Blu-ray players to connect to a different set of video sources.

Note the phrase "different set": Unlike a Web browser, these Internet-connected TVs can't play video from any old site, even though most sites use the same Adobe Flash software to present clips online. I understand manufacturers not wanting to build in a full-fledged Web browser, but will users resent having Web video spoon-fed to them in such limited portions?

The problems of TV's Web transition, however, go beyond manufacturers not bookmarking the right Web video sites in devices like Apple TV or those Yahoo-enabled sets. Almost all Web video downloads and many streaming-video services employ "digital rights management" software to stop viewers from making unauthorized use of these movies and TV shows -- at the cost of greater complexity and reduced compatibility.

Movie studios have kept demanding this so-called DRM even as record labels have consigned it to oblivion. At Macworld, Apple announced that its iTunes Store -- the largest music outlet in the United States -- would join the ranks of such competitors as Amazon's MP3 store to sell only DRM-free music by the end of March.

Purchased movie downloads, by contrast, continue to come locked up in various types of DRM that limit their utility. (On rentals, DRM can serve a legitimate role in enforcing expiration dates -- but many online rentals come as streaming video that never constitute a single, easily copied file.) So the best Web-connected TV still can't play a movie "protected" by DRM that it can't unlock.

That may be the toughest obstacle of all to TV's Web transition. For one thing, the industry that brought us "format wars" like VHS vs. Betamax and HD DVD vs. Blu-ray is awful at setting common standards. For another, the companies demanding strict DRM aren't the ones exhibiting at events like Macworld and CES.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at robp@washpost.com. Read more at http://blog.washingtonpost.com/fasterforward/Text FASTER to WPOST (97678) for a link to the Faster Forward column on your mobile phone.


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