Thu, Feb 19, 2009 - Page 9 News List

The Web and the recalcitrant TV set

Televisions have proved to be remarkably resilient to the Internet boom,but that may change as soonas the consumer has a real, affordable choice

By Matt Richtel  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , PALO ALTO, California

You would be hard-pressed to find a screen today that does not have Internet access. It’s not just the PC and the phone — online content appears in elevators, in the back of taxis and at your airplane seat. Some companies have even tried (albeit unsuccessfully) to get the Internet displayed on a refrigerator door.

So how is it that the Internet has largely escaped the single biggest screen in most of our lives — the TV?

An intensifying, and perhaps surprising, debate is playing out around this question and others. Should televisions be able to get access to the Web? And not just the thin slices of the Web allowed by a few services, but the whole cacophonous, unregulated, messy thing? And if they should, how should they?

Now a movement is afoot by chipmakers big and small to spur a new generation of TVs with full browser capability, like a personal computer. In October, Intel released its own TV-centric chip and many other semiconductor designers and manufacturers are doing the same, industry analysts said.

But perhaps the most surprising thing is not how long it is taking to get the Internet on TV but that, to some degree, the slow pace is deliberate. Television manufacturers simply do not seem to want it.

“Sony’s stance is that consumers don’t want an Internet-like experience with their TVs, and we’re really not focused on bringing anything other than Internet video or widgets to our sets right now,” said Greg Belloni, a spokesman for Sony (Widgets is an industry term for narrow channels of Internet programming like YouTube).

Ditto for Sharp Electronics.

“I don’t think that consumers are yet ready to access all content on the Internet on the TV,” said Bob Scaglione, senior vice president for marketing at the Sharp Electronics Marketing Co of America.

“For now, it’s more important to deliver content consumers want on a TV and let them do their browsing on a PC,” he said.

Some industry analysts say TV makers have a point, in that many consumers associate their television with one-way communications they ingest while leaning back on the couch. Browsing the Internet, the thinking goes, is a more immersive, active pursuit.

Analysts and industry executives say TV manufacturers have other reasons for asserting that consumers do not want to use the Internet from their couch. For one thing, profit margins in the TV industry are as tight as can be. So adding the cost of surfing technology — which could be US$100 — is one potential roadblock.

Then there is the reality of opening a television up to the Internet and, potentially, the viruses and hiccups that can creep in from outside. Consumers have become accustomed to the occasional “blue screen of death” on a PC, but imagine this happening during prime time or the Super Bowl.

“People have very little tolerance for viruses and crashes on TVs,” said Eric Kim, senior vice president for the Digital Home Group at Intel. “If someone’s TV ever crashes, they will pack it up and bring it back to the store.”

Intel’s chip, the Intel Media Processor CE 3100, does allow full browsing. But it has been adopted by only a handful of TV manufacturers and only in a limited fashion. Manufacturers seem to prefer to keep their customers in a walled garden of selected content.

Samsung, for instance, plans to sell TVs this spring that provide access to news, weather and finance channels provided by Yahoo. Sharp’s Aquos TVs already have widgets that provide traffic, weather and financial information, access to daily syndicated comic strips and some Web-based sports and entertainment programming from NBC. Sony offers similar widgets on some of its TVs.

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