2009 is the year of the Connected TV

March 12, 2009

(sorry to long-time readers for the recent radio silence — between traveling and coming down with two successive bouts of some kind of flu, I have not been keeping up my end of the deal. I’ll make it up to you, I promise :)

I wrote about Yahoo’s TV Widget Engine in January, calling it the Belle of the CES Ball. I still stand by the sentiment, so much so that I wrote a very deep dive on the concept for Forrester clients which was just published this week. If you’re a client, check out the report here (and even if you’re not a client, you can see a summary at the same link). I won’t give away the precious detail here, but let me riff about the report’s implications a bit.

The most important thing Yahoo’s TV Widget Engine does is open a platform for innovation in the connected TV space, I said that before in the original post. However, the innovation that will matter most is programmer-led innovation that enhances TV viewing, by adding interesting information and interactivity over the live TV experience.

Why should content owners do this? Becuase this is the first technology innovation in a decade that will actually encourage live viewing of television. 

What do I mean? Already, there are people who keep their laptops on their laps (where else?) during American Idol or Dexter so they can chat with friends or follow Twitter conversations related to the show. NBC even encourages people to text to a special SMS number during Heroes to get special updates and clues during the show. But all of those exepriences are outside of the TV screen and therefore limited to the few people willing to manage multiple devices. Imagine if broadcasters and programmers could do the work for you, overlaying the experience on the TV screen to increase your enjoyment of the show — as well as your desire to watch it live when the online buzz is the greatest.

The problem is we have a short window in which content owners (networks, producers, publishers, etc.) can establish the habits that will favor them in the long run. If they don’t catch on quickly, they’ll miss this chance to drive *gasp* actual live viewership and instead, technology innovators will focus on widgets that deliver other benefits that aren’t programming-centric. I personally think weather, horoscope, and personal ad widgets — while of interest to specific subgroups — will never catch on on the TV to the degree that program-specific widgets will. Why? Because people watch TV to watch TV, not read the news or scan personal ads. That’s what the PC is for.

Am I right? We’ll find out soon enough because Verizon just announced that later in the fall it will be pushing an open-widget development platform to its Verizon FiOS TV customers’ set top boxes. For those who did not know, Verizon has been developing widgets since 2006. However, the widget environment was proprietary and did not allow outside parties to contribute. Verizon has changed that with this latest version and as a show of force, it has built a Twitter widget designed to automatically scour tweets to find any that mention the show that you are currently watching — change the channel, and the widget will search for and display any new tweets related to the new show on your screen. 

This is a genius move. It demonstrates the value of synchronizing widgets with live TV without waiting for the Yahoo! widget platform to find its way into homes.

If I’m right (and Verizon finds a way to let customers know about this feature — which is always a problem when you push free features to set tops, most people never know they’re there), Verizon’s 1.6 million customers will be a very attractive test best for interactive TV widgets. If you are a developer, get hopping, let’s see what you can do.

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Yahoo! TV Widgets are the Belle of the CES Ball

January 8, 2009

Yahoo! has surprised me. Back in August it announced a new TV development platform called the Yahoo! Widget Engine. Developed together with Intel, this Widget engine was billed as the way to get Internet content and functionality to the TV set.

I’ll admit I was skeptical. We’ve heard so many announcements about getting Web content to the TV that my response was, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Today I’ve seen it.

yahoo-widgetsNot just a demo of proposed functionality as is so often the case. But I’ve seen a line of partnerships on the device and content sides that backs up Yahoo!’s claims. And though it will be hard for average viewers to grok why, this is the most important TV-related announcement to come out of CES.

Why, you ask? Because most CES announcements are specific to one device or service. A new video editing software suite, a new portable media player, a new 3D television. Even the announcement from LG that it would build Netflix into a line of TVs is a single-device announcement. Interesting, innovative, and pointing us in the right direction, but ultimately limited by the reach of that single device.

Yahoo!’s announcement, on the other hand, is already having a broad impact. Check yesterday’s press release for more detail if you need it, or better yet, see the whole scenario by visiting the Yahoo! Connected TV site, but here’s the list of TV makers who have signed on to build Yahoo! Widget capabilities into their TVs: Samsung, Sony, LG, & Vizio. Three on that list are hungry market share grabbers who are rising rapidly. Sony is a long-established player whose inclusion on the list teaches us something about the future of the connected TV.

In the old days (read: 2008), connected TVs were built around walled content gardens that required the TV maker to strike content deals and figure out how to promote the content to the viewer. TV viewers are notoriously routine-driven so breaking into their routines was particularly difficult to do. Hence, connected TV activities on HP and Sony devices have been modest to date.

In the new world, TV makers will simply provide access to a common platform, the way a PC does. Think about it: when you buy a PC from Dell, you aren’t limited to the software that Dell has programmed, or even software that Dell has chosen to license to you from 3rd parties (the way the iPhone app store works, hmmm, how old fashioned, eh?). You buy a PC from any maker, it runs software from any developer.

That’s the promise of Yahoo!’s TV Widget Engine. As long as sufficient TV makers adopt it, it will become an open standard for putting content on the TV. Open standards, once adopted, enable content innovation.

What content, you say? Here’s a list of people beyond Yahoo! itself developing TV Widgets so far, a list which is likely to increase by a factor of 10x as soon as a million people have Widget-capable TVs: Flickr, eBay, MySpace, CBS, The New York Times, Netflix, Amazon, Blockbuster, Showtime, USA TODAY and Twitter. All major names whose inclusion is likely to tempt others to fall in line. 

I’m meeting with Yahoo! at CES to talk about the future later today. For the first time in a long time, I see Yahoo! playing a significant role in the future of interactive content. Bully for them. It’s just a question of how long until Google decides to jump in and whether TV makers will want to support multiple widget or application systems on their TVs. Plus, I wonder what the long-term payoff to Yahoo! is for building this open system. We’ll talk all of that through. 

This is yet another example of how the software and Internet community is innovating ahead of cable. TV widgets are something cable and satellite have been toying with for years. But they develop too slowly and reach too few customers with their trials to have had an impact. We’ll see how quickly Yahoo!’s Widget Engine can make us forget cable’s attempts to add interactivity to the TV screen.