When I started working at the American-Statesman a decade ago, the dot-com bubble was just beginning to burst. One of the covers of our late, lamented personal technology section, Technopolis, depicted a 1950s-era couple in a kitchen, marveling at a flat-panel Web browser they had just detached from the door of their refrigerator as a flying robot placed a fedora on the husband's head. The futuristic concept of Internet-connected smart appliances, including washing machines and refrigerators, was hot then, and manufacturers had begun to bring those devices to the market.
What? You don't own a "fridgernet"? You're not alone.
A recent Google search didn't turn up many Web-enabled fridge references beyond 2003 (and the latest of those were mocking the failure of the concept). So never mind that particular product, not to mention the flying robots ... it's 2010. Why don't I really even have the Internet on my TV?
Convergence, a hot topic at this year's South by Southwest Interactive conference (which opens Friday, March 12) was supposed to take care of that by now. Convergence is, literally, things coming together, and a good example of technological convergence is the bundling provided by your television/Internet/phone provider. Mine, AT&T, is neither cable nor satellite. It's Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) and my voice, data and video services all enter my house through one set of wires. Convergence.
Many of the upcoming SXSW panels are only tangentially related to the subject. Others, such as "Is Technology Weakening Interpersonal Relationships?" examine the consequences of constantly being connected, one of the promises (and possible curses) of technological convergence. What most interest me are those panels that examine convergence in regardto television viewing. These include "PayTV vs. Internet — The Battle For Your TV" (featuring Avner Ronen, co-founder and CEO of Boxee) and "From Hulu To Yahoo Widgets: Will The Internet Transform The TV?" (with Richard Bullwinkle, chief evangelist at Rovi Corp.).
"I think today we're at the point where a lot of the technology is already there for users to get Internet to their TVs," says Ronen. His company's software lets users play content from the Internet or their computers on their TV screens. "I think I saw on one of the blogs last week that 25 percent of the TVs sold in the last quarter had Internet connections on them. I think over the next three to five years it's going to become more of a mainstream phenomenon as people upgrade their TV sets."
If that conjures up visions of families scattered about their living rooms with keyboards in their laps, surfing the Web on big screen televisions, think again.
"I don't think that browsing today, as we know it on the computer or even on the mobile, is going to be the same on the TV," Ronen says, noting that television is a social experience. "In many cases you watch TV together with more than one person," he says. "But people don't usually read together. You read the newspaper or a book alone." And then there's the practical problem of reading Web pages at a distance of 10 feet or so.
Bullwinkle agrees (among other things, Rovi produces on-screen program guide software for televisions). "The computer industry has spent the last 10 years trying to turn computers into televisions, and I think it's very important that we don't turn televisions into computers," he says.
U-verse provides some level of Internet connectivity to my television. I can check the weather, look at photos or play Yahoo games, but I seldom do; I use my laptop or iPhone for those things. So how will consumers utilize the features of Internet-connected TVs in the future? Ronen and Bullwinkle suggest that Internet connection will enhance the viewing experience in several ways:
More content. Bullwinkle notes that we went from four over-the-air channels to 40 cable channels. "Now we're somewhere around 400, and we're going to 4,000 very quickly," he says. The Internet-connected television will be able to serve up content from the broadcast and cable networks, the entirety of the Internet and any content — photos, music, etc. — you've got scattered about on your home computers.
Enhanced content. "I think people (will) take advantage of the fact that it's connected to the Internet to dive deeper into content that they like," Ronen predicts. "If they watch a movie they'll be able to get more information about the actor, watch other clips, share stuff with their friends, see what their friends are watching."
He foresees viewers using laptops or cell phones to comment on what they're viewing (think Twitter) and being able to turn on and off an on-screen social stream for a program the way they turn on and off closed captioning. "Those things are definitely coming together, and I think social media is going to be a big part of it," Ronen says. Bullwinkle, too, sees social media playing into enhanced television viewing, but his prediction comes with a warning. "If my son's Facebook notifications pop up in the middle of ‘The Dark Knight'," he jokes, "first the TV's going in the trash and then the kid, too."
Content recommendation and organization. Bullwinkle talks about the vast amount of content available on the Internet. "How will you know what's relevant to you? How will you know which are the good shows out there? How will you know what are the best YouTube clips?" he asks. "How are we going to help people find that and manage it and organize it?" The answer might be as near as your iPod. "Instead of networks, you'll think of playlists," he says. "You'll try to find people you relate to who are watching similar things — I think social networks are a big part of the recommendation process. (Say) I'm into 30-minute sitcoms, what are the best ones out there? If I'm into this actor, what have they been in? All of those things together, lots of detail, will help me find those things."
Bullwinkle has a dog in this fight. Rovi creates television program guides andhas announced a product called Total Guide. It aims to merge all content available to Internet-enabled televisions — stuff from the Web, your television provider, anything on your home computers — into a single on-screen guide. The product also features social networking aspects that allow a viewer's online friends to make content recommendations that also show up in the guide.
There's no hard-and-fast timetable for all of these changes. Some of them are already beginning to happen: Bullwinkle hopes that partnering television manufacturers will incorporate some version of Total Guide into their new products this year. Some we probably haven't even thought of. Still, we'd be wise to remember the lesson of the Web-enabled refrigerator.
"I think there's a very consistent history of getting excited about technology and predicting its adoption much quicker than reality," says Ronen, who adds that there are still issues with bandwidth, infrastructure, cost and consumer demand. "Usually, I think, those trends are identified 20 years before they become mainstream. So maybe we're on the right time track here. It's going to be a long transition but, eventually, all those living rooms are going to get connected."
'PayTV vs. Internet — The Battle For Your TV'
When: 5 p.m. Friday, March 12
Where: Ballroom D, Austin Convention Center
'From Hulu To Yahoo Widgets: Will The Internet Transform The TV?'
When: 4:25 p.m. Monday, March 15
Where: 12AB, Austin Convention Center
Panels open to registered SXSW Interactive attendees.