The revolution will be televised

While many people have turned their attention from the PC to mobile, it seems the bleeding edge of technology is now moving to television.

This week’s announcements of pricing around the Google TV offerings, combined with some of the first deliveries of AppleTV boxes, have kicked off a new salvo in the war for the third screen.

TV and web pre-history

Before I go into more details as to why I think this is important, I need to give newer readers some background in the history of the many failed attempts to merge the web and television.

In the early 1990s, in an era that is considered mostly pre-internet (that is, before the internet became mainstream), then vice-presidential candidate Al Gore talked about the “information superhighway,” a concept that highlighted a universe where most interactive data would move to your television. The TV screen has always been the main screen in American household and, unless you were a computer geek, that was largely the case in the early 1990s.

As the 1990s moved on and the commercial internet moved to the center of public consciousness, there were several attempts to marry the internet and the web (12 years ago, I was even involved in a failed effort at creating a standard web model for bringing TV to the web). The basic idea, at the time, was to bring TV content to the web and enhance it with some extra juicy bits from the web. This meant, for example, being able to push web content that would provide more info on a broadcast (for example, related news stories). The concept wasn’t new in that it had been embedded in a lot of British television since the 1970s as teletext, passing extra content as part of a broadcast.

Set top boxes wars

At the time, a group of engineers and product managers who had worked for Apple left the company and started a new offering called WebTV. WebTV was a new type of set-top box allowing its users to surf the web on their television. The company also introduced a set of specialized tags that web developers could use to create pages that were formatted to fit this new TV paradigm.

Others looked to the same concepts and, in the late 1990s, the set-top boxes became a new competitive arena for distributing content in a digital form (In order to disclose my biases, I must point out that I worked on a consulting basis for Nokia’s set-top boxes group, an effort that ended up having an impact on some of the thinking behind podcasting)

WebTV networks was acquired by Microsoft and much of its technology ended up in the Media Center edition of Windows, which powered the next wave of TV/web marriage.

Starting with Windows XP, Microsoft offered a Media Center edition of their Windows platform. The idea was basically Windows, on your TV. Unfortunately, the assumption that the PC experience could translate to a large screen proved to be mostly wrong (this, by the way, is a mistake that Microsoft also made on mobile devices, assuming, until recently, that the windows metaphor could transport itself to other experiences).

As the dotcom boom led to a dotcom crash, much of the intentions to merge the web and TV disappeared. The concept of converged content moved from the web to gaming stations as a delivery mechanism  (in fact, around 2006-2007, I was considering the Sony Playstation as an attempt to get BluRay to defeat HD-DVD instead of an actual delivery device). In the midst of a 3-way war between Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo for gaming supremacy, Appled announce its first foray into the TV space with iTV (later to be renamed AppleTV). While they didn’t look at games as a space at the time, their model of attaching a device to the TV was no different then than the model they have today: the set-top box as a way to buy content from Apple. In that sense, the fact that the company hasn’t changed direction points to their belief that this is the right model (though I personally think that, in the long run, they will end up opening the marketplace further, in a fashion similar to what they did with the iPhone).

Internet Everywhere: 5, 15, 50

Over the last few years, as more video content has become available, the internet has moved back to being discussed as a delivery mechanism for many types of devices.

I call that the 5, 15, 50 paradigm, since internet content is now being offered on devices that have 5 inches screens (mobile devices), 15 inches screens (computers), and 50 inches screens (televisions).

Netflix has had pretty good success with their strategy of getting their player integrated in a lot of devices, thus allowing their content to be streamed pretty much everywhere if a connection is available.

Apple vs. Google

But now that the war is moving to that new ground, two players in the computer and mobile space have decided to fight for that corner of our digital lives: Apple is re-tuning its AppleTV box to be more competitive on a price level and Google is gearing up for a larger attack on the living room. In this case, however, I think that Apple has an early lead with some critical flaws.

The reason I believe Apple has an advantage here is that their offering, from a product standpoint seems to balance the right feature vs. price compromise. The Netflix and YouTube offerings are no-brainers but the reliance on iTunes as the delivery mechanism for your pictures and movies is annoying: I think that’s a critical flaw in that most people do not want to have to turn their computer and iTunes on in order to have access to that content. Apple should offer a way to attach a network drive (maybe a modified version of their time capsule) on which a user could drop pictures and movies, leaving them there for use from the Apple TV (or mac, iPhone, and iPod) at any time.

Google, on the other hand, is introducing a product that is just a more modern version of WebTV. And I’d warrant that, at this time, the keyboard interface approach is the wrong metaphor for the big screen. The keyboard on the first devices (Logitech Revue and Sony Internet TV) to follow the Google strategy are just too big (as the owner of a Logitech DiNovo Mini, the keyboard that’s modified for logitech’s enhanced offering, I can tell you that most normal people get confused by such an offering). This, in itself, would not be a killer as Boxee has demonstrated, with the remote for their boxee box, that a remote can have two sides, allowing for the complexity to be simplified.

Keyboard aside, however, GoogleTV will have a problem the price point ($299 for the Revue), which is too high for most consumer. Considering that Apple is pricing the AppleTV at $99, consumers may question what they get for the extra $200. Geeks like myself may end up buying something like the GoogleTV box but I suspect that the vast majority of the public will not.

Meanwhile, the incumbents in that space (cable companies, as well as Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo) are not sitting on their hands and smaller players (Roku, Boxee) are looking to get a share of the market too.

The next set of battles will be waged for your living room and they are gearing up to be interesting as, for the first time in a very long time, TV may become more about the consumer than it is about the advertisers.

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