The battle for the living room

By Paul O’Reilly

If you think you have seen the above headline before, then you are right! It has been used many times by journalists and other industry commentators to describe attempts by tech heavyweights like Apple and Microsoft to revolutionize the way we watch TV.

The only problem is that, so far, the revolution has been mostly talk and no battle. While the iPod and digital music transformed the music industry, and e-readers are currently doing the same for the literary world, the good old TV has barely felt a ripple.

Yes, we have made a seamless transition to digital signals and HD formats, and DVRs have made our viewing experience more efficient, but most of us do what we have always done – turn on a screen across the room and watch whatever the networks or cable companies have scheduled.

There have been some attempts to do things differently. Streaming TV sites like Hulu and on-demand services such as Netflix have managed to integrate TV and the Web for a few, but most of us are more than happy to settle on the couch whenever we can and grab the remote.

Now, two announcements in the last couple of weeks have set off another round of revolutionary chatter. The first was from that perennial living room battler, Apple. Although you might not know it, Apple has been in the TV business since 2007, marketing an Apple TV set-top box which people could use to rent movies and watch a limited number of TV shows.

Apple has now introduced a second-generation Apple TV, reducing the size of the box by almost 75% and slashing the price to $99. It now more closely resembles an online entertainment storefront, with movies and TV shows available from iTunes and Netflix. However, at its core it remains a delivery system for repackaged content. Although the highly affordable price may take Apple TV mainstream, it’s not going to threaten the content dominance of the networks and cable operators.

Fast on the heels of Apple’s announcement came one from Google. Google’s plan is to unite Internet search and content with premium television content under a single user interface – Google TV. This will enable users to, say, search for actors, movie titles or television series and stream selected results direct to their TVs.

In many ways, Google’s vision embodies the TV revolution that many have been waiting for. Instead of a parallel experience with an alternative delivery mechanism, Google TV would replace the traditional set top box with a computer, with streamed TV content being just one of a myriad of options. Of course, that assumes the cooperation of TV manufacturers, some of which are already on board, and the cable and satellite providers like Comcast and DirecTV, which is far from a given.

After so many false starts, it’s hard to predict if these initiatives are truly transformative or just more options for content on demand. Even an obviously chastened Steve Jobs admitted that consumers “go to their widescreen TVs for entertainment, not to have another computer.” But then, two years ago who would have thought that millions of people would be reading the latest Stephen King novel on a 6-inch electronic display?

The only sure thing is that the big guns in technology will keep on spending until they get it right. Vive la Revolution!

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